Back to News & Commentary

Join Us: A Roundtable Discussion on Deportations to Torture

Share This Page
February 8, 2011

On Thursday, Steven Watt from the ACLU’s Human Rights Program will participate in a roundtable discussion on diplomatic assurances against torture at Columbia Law School in New York City. Join us! The discussion is open to the public:

When: Thursday, February 10, 4:20 – 6:20 pm
Where: Columbia Law School, 435 W 116th Street, Jerome Greene Hall Room 103

Diplomatic assurances are promises between countries that persons transferred from one county to another will not be tortured in the destination country. Our government relies on these assurances to return noncitizens to countries with well-documented records of torture. The government’s position is, notwithstanding such a record, because of the assurance, the person will be safe. Unfortunately, these assurances — which are akin to handshakes between countries — are inherently unenforceable. Indeed, in many instances we have to take our government’s word that they even exist, because the State Department insists that these “assurances” are kept secret.

In December, Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute released a report about the U.S. government’s reliance upon these promises. Mentioned in the report is the case of Sameh Khouzam, a Coptic Christian who fled Egypt in 1998. Khouzam claimed he had been tortured by the Egyptian government after refusing to convert to Islam. In 2004, after spending six years in immigration detention, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals held that he faced a probability of torture were he returned to Egypt and that he was therefore entitled to protection under the Convention Against Torture.

Notwithstanding the court’s decision, one day in 2007, during a routine reporting visit, Khouzam was told that he was going to be deported back to Egypt in three days based upon Egypt’s diplomatic assurance that it would not persecute or torture Khouzam upon his return

The ACLU’s Immigrants Rights Project and the ACLU of Pennsylvania challenged Khouzam’s deportation and won. The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals found the U.S. government has violated his due process rights — a right enjoyed by all people in the U.S., not just citizens — by not giving him any opportunity to challenge the adequacy of the diplomatic assurance.

Thursday’s event will also include discussion about the case of rendition victim Maher Arar. A Canadian citizen, Arar was stopped in 2002 during a layover at JFK and subsequently sent to Syria, where he was confined in an underground grave-like cell for nearly a year, tortured and denied access to a lawyer. Without substantiating its claims, the Bush administration accused Arar of ties to al Qaeda. However, neither the U.S. nor Syria ever charged him with a crime during his incarceration, and 10 months and 10 days after his transfer to Syria, he was released without explanation or apology.

While at the Center for Constitutional Rights, Steven represented Arar in a case against U.S. officials for their participation in his rendition and torture. However, like the ACLU’s case against the CIA on behalf of Khaled El-Masri, another victim of the extraordinary rendition program, Arar’s case was dismissed by lower courts in the United States without any consideration of his claims of U.S. involvement. Last year, the Supreme Court announced that it would not hear Arar’s case. The Canadian government, however, admitted to some culpability; an inquiry found that Canadian officials had given “misleading information” to U.S. officials that led to Arar’s arrest. The Canadian government subsequently apologized to Arar for its wrongdoing and awarded him $10 million in compensation.

Professor Peter Rosenblum, faculty codirector of Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute, will moderate the panel discussion, which will also feature:

  • Julia Hall, Amnesty International
  • Felice Gaer, member of the United Nations’ Committee Against Torture and Director of the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights
  • Ashley Deeks of Columbia Law School and former Assistant Legal Adviser for Political-Military Affairs at the Department of State
  • Naureen Shah of Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute and the report’s author.

If you can’t attend the event, watch it stream live at

Learn more about torture and diplomatic assurances: Subscribe to our newsletter, follow us on Twitter, and friend us on Facebook.

Learn More About the Issues on This Page