updated 10/18/2007 9:28:15 PM ET 2007-10-19T01:28:15

Members of Congress apologized Thursday to a Canadian engineer seized by U.S. officials and taken to Syria, where he and the Canadian government say he was tortured.

Maher Arar said he was ensnared in an "immoral" terrorism-fighting program known as extraordinary rendition.

The 37-year-old appeared before a joint hearing of House of Representatives subcommittees by video from Ottawa, Canada, because he remains on a U.S. government watch list.

"Let me personally give you what our government has not: an apology," Democratic Rep. Bill Delahunt said as he opened the hearing. "Let me apologize to you and the Canadian people for our government's role in a mistake."

Arar said he was grateful for the lawmakers' apologies, but hoped the U.S. government eventually will apologize to him officially.

"Let me be clear: I am not a terrorist, I am not a member of al-Qaida or any terror group. I am a father, a husband and an engineer. I am also a victim of the immoral practice of extraordinary rendition," he said.

Arar recounted being thrown into a tiny cell and tortured into a false confession that he had trained at a terror camp in Afghanistan.

"Life in that cell was hell. I spent 10 months and 10 days in that grave," he said.

Lawmaker: 'We should be ashamed'
Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher also apologized but said he would fight any efforts by Democrats to end the practice of extraordinary rendition. That is the seizure of terror suspects by U.S. government agents and their transfer to a country where local authorities may torture confessions out of them. The Bush administration says it does not knowingly do that.

"Yes, we should be ashamed" of what happened in the Arar case, Rohrabacher said. "That is no excuse to end a program which has protected the lives of hundreds of thousands if not millions of Americans. ... We are at war. Mistakes happen. People die."

Arar, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen, was detained by U.S. immigration agents on Sept. 26, 2002, as he stopped over in New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport en route home from a vacation. Days later, he was sent by private jet to Syria where, according to Canadian officials, he was tortured.

After nearly a year in a Syrian prison, he was released without charges and returned to Canada. "This was a kidnapping," declared Rep. Jerry Nadler, another Democrat.

Canadians to pay Arar millions
The Canadian government has apologized to Arar for its role in the case and agreed to pay him almost $10 million in compensation.

The administration has not apologized and has refused to say much about its extraordinary rendition program other than it is an extremely important tool in combating terrorists.

Arar's hearing comes a day before Hollywood is to offer its own take on the contentious anti-terror program: "Rendition," starring Reese Witherspoon, opens in U.S. theaters Friday.

A lengthy Canadian investigation into the Arar case found the Royal Canadian Mounted Police wrongly labeled him an Islamic fundamentalist and passed misleading and inaccurate information to U.S. authorities, which very likely led to Arar's arrest and deportation.

The inquiry also determined Arar was indeed tortured, and it cleared him of any terror links or suspicions.

Legal experts say the case shows the United States has violated a 1998 law that specifically prohibits the government from turning a suspect over to a foreign country where the suspect might be tortured. U.S. authorities say they do not turn over suspects to other countries without diplomatic assurances that they will not be tortured.

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