Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Another victim of Sept. 11

Toronto Star
Apr 11, 2007
Thomas Walkom

Benamar Benatta is one of the other victims of 9/11.

The terrorists didn't get him. The Toronto man wasn't killed or injured in the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington. In fact, he was in detention in Canada at the time, awaiting a hearing on his application for political asylum here.

He says he didn't even know about the twin tower attacks until the next day. Rather, it was circumstance, American backlash and maybe – just maybe – Canadian officialdom that conspired to take away almost five years of Benatta's life.

Because sometime on Sept. 12, 2001, someone in authority in Canada apparently decided to circumvent this country's immigration laws and return Benatta – illegally and against his will, it seems – to the U.S.

Which is where, as he detailed yesterday in an interview, his nightmare really took shape.

He was jailed for almost five years without charge. He was manacled and chained. For the first month and a half, he was not allowed to wear shoes. He was denied access to counsel. He was kept in a cell with the light on 24 hours a day and wakened every half hour. He was beaten. If he complained that his chains were too tight, the guards tightened them further.

The aviation engineer and former Algerian air force lieutenant isn't a terrorist. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation determined that well over five years ago. Nor has he ever been convicted of any offence.

Indeed, for most of the time he was kept in jail – first in Brooklyn, later in upstate New York – he wasn't charged with any crime. When he eventually appeared in U.S. court on the minor immigration charge of overstaying his visa, an angry judge dismissed the case as a "sham."

Last July, a somewhat embarrassed Canadian government quietly agreed to let him return to continue with his application for political asylum.

So he is back in Toronto, trying to pick up the pieces and make sense of what happened to him.

"In the beginning, I just tried to forget," he says. "But it's impossible. I'm not the same person. I can't get my life back. I feel lost. I feel depressed. Five years of my life are gone. I need two or three years just to catch up."
The story of 32-year-old Benatta is a bleak comedy of bad luck, mischance and malevolence. A trained engineer, he joined the air force in 1992 to test flight systems.

That was his first mistake. For 1992 was the year that Algeria's military-backed government abruptly cancelled elections to keep the opposition Islamic party from power. The country spiralled into a vicious civil war marked by atrocities on both sides. Entire villages were murdered. Rape, torture and assassination were common.

Benatta watched in growing horror. On the one hand, he disagreed with what he called the "methods" the military was using to fight Islamists. Yet on the other, as an air force officer, he was a marked man for any Islamic fighter seeking revenge.

"I was caught between two fires," he says.

So he plotted his escape. In late 2000, the chance came. With about 40 other officers, he was sent to Baltimore to be trained in new aircraft technology.

In April 2001, he packed a small bag, quietly slipped out of his hotel and took a bus to New York City. He had deserted and was on the lam.

Had Benatta been, say, an Iranian defector, he might have received a warm welcome from U.S. authorities. But the U.S. considers the Algerian anti-Islamist military government an ally. So that route was blocked.

He tried to enlist the help of a refugee support group. It lost his application. He got a job as a busboy, but was fired after three weeks. He went to bartending school. But that resulted in only a few days of part-time work.

Fearing U.S. authorities would deport him back to Algeria, he bought false identity papers.

By August, his U.S. visa had expired. Friends told him to try Canada. On Sept. 4, 2001, Benatta took the midnight bus to Toronto. He got as far as Fort Erie.

It didn't take Canadian immigration officials long to discover that the Algerian was using false papers. In fact, most refugee claimants do just that. Benatta admitted his true identity and applied for political asylum.

He was put into detention while immigration officials checked him out. Because he seemed depressed, he was put in solitary confinement under suicide watch. Which is why, on Sept. 11, Benatta had no idea what was happening.

That was his second stroke of bad luck – to be a Muslim in custody on 9/11.

The third stroke of bad luck was in his bag – a pack of souvenir snapshots. One, a photo of the New York skyline, showed the World Trade Centre. Another pictured Benatta smiling outside the White House.

On Sept. 10, 2001, such photos would have meant nothing. On Sept. 11, they were deemed fraught with significance.

Benatta was interviewed on Sept. 12. Official transcripts indicate he saw an immigration adjudicator who scheduled another hearing in seven days. Benatta says he doesn't remember that. He remembers only being interrogated by a man and a woman in civilian clothes. He says he was asked whether he knew how to fly a plane.

The official transcript indicates nothing of this.

Later on the 12th, he was taken to the prison's main processing room where he was told he was being moved to another jail. He says no one told him the new jail would be in the United States.

The Algerian was put into a white vehicle "like a police car" with two Canadian officials and driven for about 45 minutes. It was only when the car stopped, he says, that he realized he was back in America.

That's also when he first found out about the events of 9/11.

For Canada, the events around Sept. 12 are crucial. If Benatta agreed voluntarily to return to the U.S., he was merely foolish. If, however, after requesting political asylum, he was taken against his will and without a formal deportation order, someone has broken the law.

Officially, Ottawa says Benatta left voluntarily. But it admits it can find no written record to confirm that. An immigration department spokesperson refused to discuss the case further.

Meanwhile, Benatta waits for his refugee claim to be heard. He says he just wants to know why all of this happened.

"Why was I singled out? I want some answers. I just can't live like this. I want to get over this but I need some answers."