Ottawa man held in Syria returns home


Almalki won't say how he avoided 2 years' service in Syrian military, but Canadian officials didn't help
Kate Jaimet
The Ottawa Citizen

An Ottawa man who spent two years in a Syrian prison, and was then ordered to serve another two-and-a-half years in the Syrian army, returned safely to Canada this past weekend.

But it remains unclear how Abdullah Almalki, a 33-year-old Canadian citizen, managed to avoid his military service and leave Syria, the country of his birth. In a brief e-mail, Mr. Almalki announced his return to Ottawa and thanked his supporters and the journalists who publicized his case. Neither Mr. Almalki nor his family granted interviews yesterday.

"I am happy to be back home safely in Canada. I will speak to journalists after I take time off to recover from the ordeals I have been through," Mr. Almalki wrote.

He also thanked the Syrian government "for allowing me to return home to Canada."

But Mr. Almalki did not give the Canadian government any credit for his homecoming in the e-mail. In fact, Foreign Affairs spokesman Reynald Doiron said the Canadian government was not aware of Mr. Almalki's return.

Mr. Almalki has not been in contact with the Canadian Embassy in Damascus since July 27. "We are not in a position to confirm the contents of (Mr. Almalki's) e-mail," Mr. Doiron said.

Mr. Almalki's lawyer, Michael Edelson, confirmed last night that his client has returned to Canada. He said he has already met with Mr. Almalki, who is staying in "a safe place" and is recovering from his lengthy ordeal.

Mr. Edelson refused to provide specifics about how his client fled Syria and travelled back to Canada. He said a statement detailing his client's ordeal would be released once Mr. Almalki had the chance to finish telling him about the journey. The Syrian Embassy in Ottawa also would not comment on Mr. Almalki's return.

Mr. Almalki, a Carleton University electrical engineering graduate, was arrested in a Damascus airport in May 2002, after arriving in Syria to join his parents for a visit with relatives.

Although the charges against him were unclear, he was apparently suspected of subversion and of posing a security risk to the Syrian state. He was also under investigation by the RCMP in Ottawa for alleged terrorist links.

According to his family, his imprisonment in Syria came at the request of Canadian authorities. RCMP assistant commissioner Ghyslaine Clement has denied this accusation.

During his two years in Syrian prison, Mr. Almalki was allegedly tortured and made to serve 16 months in solitary confinement. He emerged from prison in March with a badly healed broken foot and psychological scars. On July 25, a Syrian court cleared him of all wrongdoing, but ordered him to report for 30 months of mandatory military service.

At the time, his family expressed concern he was in no physical or mental condition to undergo the rigours of life in the Syrian army.

Canadian diplomats requested the Syrians waive Mr. Almalki's army service, but said they could do little more to help him. Nothing further was heard of his plight for more than a week, until he turned up safely in Canada on the weekend.


Mr. Almalki's story, when it does become public, has the potential to send a jolt through the Maher Arar inquiry.

Sketchy evidence indicates the RCMP and CSIS were investigating Mr. Almalki as a central figure in an alleged terrorist cell in Ottawa, and that Mr. Arar was drawn into the web of suspicion through his connections to Mr. Almalki.

Mr. Arar was deported from the United States to Syria five months after Mr. Almalki was imprisoned, and the two men served time in the same jail, where they were allegedly interrogated about each other.

The RCMP has retained items seized from Mr. Almalki's home more than two years ago on the basis that their investigation is still ongoing. However, they have not laid any charges against Mr. Almalki, nor are there any outstanding warrants for his arrest.

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On the web for seven-day subscribers: The two worlds of Abdullah Almalki. Read an archival story.

 The Ottawa Citizen 2004