WASHINGTON, Oct 24 (Reuters) Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice admitted today the United States had mishandled the case of a Canadian who was deported to Syria and tortured but she stopped short of an apology.
In a rare public admission of US fault, Rice sounded contrite when she responded to a lawmaker's question about Maher Arar, who was arrested during a stopover in New York in 2002 and deported to Syria where he says he was tortured and imprisoned for a year.
''We do not think that this case was handled as it should have been,'' Rice told the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee. ''We do absolutely not wish to transfer anyone to any place in which they might be tortured.'' The Canadian government has cleared Arar of any links to terrorist groups and apologized and paid him millions of dollars in compensation.
''I am pleased that the US administration has taken the encouraging step of acknowledging that my case was mishandled,'' Arar said in a statement.
The deportation has become a sore spot in Canada-US relations, and Ottawa has called on Washington to remove Arar from its security watch list.
Syrian-born Arar is still barred from entering the United States even though a Canadian inquiry found that Canada had wrongly told US border agents that Arar was a suspected extremist.
''We have told the Canadian government that we did not think this was handled particularly well in terms of our own relationship and that we will try to do better in the future,'' Rice said.
''I think we and the Canadians do not have exactly the same understanding of what is possible in the future with Mr Arar in terms of travel and the like,'' she added.
In Ottawa, the main opposition Liberal Party said Washington should follow Canada's lead and apologize to Arar.
''It's too little, too late,'' senior Liberal legislator Irwin Cotler said when asked about Rice's comments.
Last week US lawmakers from both parties urged the Bush administration to apologize to Arar, a software engineer who is married with two children.
Rice did not apologize in the hearing and avoided directly answering a question from Massachusetts Democrat Rep. William Delahunt who asked if she knew Arar was tortured in Syria.
''You are aware of the fact that he was tortured?'' Delahunt asked.
''I am aware of claims that were made,'' she responded.
But when asked if the United States had received any diplomatic assurances from Syria that Arar would not be tortured, Rice said her memory of the events had faded and she would have to respond later to the question.
Julian Falconer, a lawyer for Arar, said the US government should admit it had ''made a huge mistake'' that jeopardized an innocent man's life.
''What you're hearing today is tiny, itty bitty, mea culpas when they should be big fat admissions, apologies and compensations,'' he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.
Reuters AK VP0102