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December 2, 2009

Harper and MacKay lies

Scott Stockdale

Scott StockdaleExactly what did the Canadian government know about the ongoing torture in Afghan jails, in 2006-2007, while Canadian forces were transferring detainees to Afghan custody?

Richard Colvin, the former No. 2 at the Canadian embassy in Kabul and now an intelligence officer at the Canadian embassy in Washington, said  in testimony before a parliamentary committee last week that he sent reports to high-level officers and officials in Ottawa in 2006 and 2007, warning that detainees handed over to Afghan jails faced certain torture.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his cabinet ministers have insisted they never knew of the reports at the time.

However, e-mails obtained by The Globe and Mail show that in Feb. 2007 the federal government sought to minimize media questions on its record of tracking Afghan prisoners.

Moreover, although Mr. Colvin was promoted to Washington, Defense Minister Peter MacKay and other Conservative MPs have attacked Mr. Colvin's credibility, suggesting his reports were based on hearsay, while at the same time acknowledging that the government changed its policy on prisoner transfers in 2007 to include monitoring of those handed over, based partly on Mr. Colvin's advice.

Now, Rick Hillier, former chief of defense staff and one-time commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, has told the parliamentary committee that claims that most Afghan detainees were tortured are "ludicrous." He told the parliamentary committee that all locals captured by Canadian troops were well-treated.

Subsequently, retired Lt. Gen. Michel Gauthier, former head of the Canadian expeditionary force in Afghanistan, told the parliamentary committee there was nothing in Mr. Colvin's reports that caused him or his staff to see serious, imminent or alarming new warnings of torture before the June 2007 reports.  He said: "To suggest that senior military officials or commanders ignored these or covered them up is wrong."

However, uncensored versions of Mr. Colvin’s reports that began circulating Wednesday night (Nov. 25) said the International Committee of the Red Cross, the agency trusted by nations to observe prisoners of war, was named in emails to Ottawa as expressing “alarm” about conditions within Afghan prisons.

The reports were widely distributed in both the defense and foreign affairs departments, and even apparently copied to Peter MacKay, who was minister of foreign affairs in 2006.

In an effort to get to the bottom of the controversy, opposition members of the parliamentary committee are demanding copies of Mr. Colvin's unsensored emails and memos.

They question why Mr. Hillier and Mr. Gauthier were allowed access to these documents, to prepare for their parliamentary committee testimony, but they have not yet received them.

Prime Minister Harper has said that he will release all “legally available” documents related to the matter, but on the eve of testimony before the parliamentary committee by David Mulroney, the prime minister's  former senior advisor on Afghanistan, the documents have not yet been released.

Defense Minister Peter MacKay said the government intends to comply with the order to produce documents, but tempered expectations by saying the records will pass through several filters before they get to MPs.

Meanwhile, Mr. Colvin’s lawyer said the Justice Department has clamped down on him.

Lori Bokenfohr said government lawyers have told Mr. Colvin they do not accept an opinion that testimony — both written and oral — before Parliament is exempt from national security provisions of the Canada Evidence Act.

That comes after the clerk of the special Afghanistan committee advised that parliamentary immunity would apply to almost all testimony.

Opposition MPs say it’s another broken promise and they renewed demands for a public inquiry.

NDP defense critic Jack Harris said the promise of openness wasn't even 24 hours old before it was broken.

Harris said the only way to clear up the contradiction is for a full-blown public inquiry.

"In a commission of inquiry, nobody would push around a justice," he said. "There would be a documentary trail established and witnesses would be called to speak to those documents."

As the controversy heats up, Alex Neve, Amnesty International Canada's secretary general said only a public inquiry can get to the bottom of the torture allegations.

“The government's insistence that torture concerns are groundless is now beyond preposterous,” Mr. Neve said. “Ministers seek to attack the credibility of an accomplished diplomat and make absurd suggestions that torture only becomes a concern if it is somehow witnessed first-hand.”

Tellingly, this is the opinion of the majority of Canadians according to a recently conducted Canadian Press Harris-Decima survey showing that 51 per cent of respondents said they believe Mr. Colvin's testimony to the committee last week, while only 25 per cent said they believe the government's position that Mr. Colvin's claims are flimsy and not credible. Moreover, 70 per cent of respondents said it's unacceptable that Canadian forces would hand over prisoners if it's likely they'll be tortured.

Harris-Decima chairman Allan Gregg said the results indicate that the government's initial strategy of attacking Mr. Colvin's credibility has backfired badly.

“You don't need to be a rocket scientist or a pollster to know that there's something unseemly about taking an allegation that appears heartfelt and twisting it around and throwing it back in someone else's face,” Mr. Gregg said.

Meanwhile, Steve Staples, at, is sending emails asking Canadians to write to all political party leaders calling for an independent public inquiry into the conduct of government and military officials at the highest levels because, “We cannot trust the military or this government to investigate itself.”

  1. In his email, Mr. Staples says we must learn the truth and hold those responsible accountable for their actions or inactions. “We   cannot allow Canada to be complicit in torture,” Mr. Staples says in his email.

Scott Stockdale is a freelance writer based in Toronto. 

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