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TORONTO, Nov 28 2009 (IPS) - Canadians appear unlikely to get the entire story behind their military’s transfer of Afghans captured in war to Afghan government authorities and possible torture.
Unless Stephen Harper’s Conservative government relents and agrees to a public inquiry, as demanded by opposition parties and human rights organisations, or at least to release now secret government memos and other documents pertaining to Afghan prisoners of the 2,700 Canadian military mission in Kandahar, the story is expected to remain incomplete, says Toronto Star columnist and respected Ottawa watcher, Chantal Hebert.
It is not surprising, she wrote in a Nov. 27 column, that a special parliamentary committee on Afghanistan, albeit led by well-briefed opposition members of Parliament, has been stymied by an inability to sort out conflicting testimony among government spokespersons, generals and critics as their hearings wind down in December.
“Opposition MPs may make up a majority on the committee but in this instance, they might as well be passengers strapped in their seats aboard a pre-programmed flight to nowhere,” Hebert said.
Explosive allegations were made in mid-November by Richard Colville, a former senior Canadian diplomat in Afghanistan from April 2006 to October 2007 and now currently a senior intelligence official at his country’s embassy in Washington.
Colville revealed before the parliamentary committee what he described as the indifference of top Canadian government officials towards Canada’s “complicity” in torture despite this country’s international treaty obligations.
“They were picked up … during routine military operations, and on the basis typically not of intelligence [reports] but suspicion or unproven denunciation,” Colville said.
He also alleged that his boss, David Mulroney, then head of the Canadian government Afghanistan Task Force, had censored his internal briefings.
“There was very widespread and incredible understanding that there were lots of problems in the Afghan justice system, in Afghan prisons, with Afghan police, as there were throughout the Afghan system,” Colville testified.
Mulroney has denied Colville’s assertion of a cover-up, stating instead that in 2006 and 2007, the Canadian government was grappling with the chaos of a growing insurgency in southern Afghanistan.
While the Harper government continues to deny that it knowingly transferred prisoners to certain torture, it had announced in 2007 an improvement of Canada’s detainee transfer agreement with Afghan authorities over what the former Liberal government had signed in 2005.
Rather than admit that mistakes might have been made, the Conservative-led minority government has attacked the credibility of Richard Colville in a well-orchestrated partisan public relations campaign, says Jeffrey Simpson, Globe and Mail political columnist.
“The attack script written this week for Conservative MPs by the Prime Minister’s Office and party research office impugn Mr. Colvin for a) wanting to assist the Taliban, b) undermining the morale of the Armed Forces, and c) making recruitment difficult,” he said.
But however the Conservatives project their story to voters, the detainee issue will reinforce the desire of the majority of Canadians to have their military vacate the NATO mission in Afghanistan after eight years of involvement, Ottawa-based defense analyst Steven Staples told IPS. (Canada’s soldiers are officially exiting in 2011 from the conflict-ridden Afghan province of Kandahar)
“It really slams the door shut on the Afghan mission. on top of the deaths, the cost, the stolen [Afghan] election and now this. The public’s mind must be just ‘lets get the heck out of there,’ “adds Staples, president of the Rideau Institute.
Canada began transferring in 2002 its war captives to Afghan authorities rather than hand them over to the larger U.S. military force in Afghanistan following revelations of torture in the U.S.-managed Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
But the preceding Liberal government had rejected calls by Amnesty International and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) that Canada and other NATO countries set up their own detention centre as an alternative. That has remained the position of the current Harper government.
“Obviously, our primary concern is that we want to ensure Canada respects its international human rights obligations and also its domestic applications, not to be complicit in the torturous use of detainees in Afghanistan,” said Grace Pastine, litigation director at the Vancouver-based BCCLA.
However, she declined to comment on the possibility that Canadian politicians and generals could be held liable for war crimes prosecution if Colville’s accusations are proven accurate. “That isn’t an issue that we have taken a position on,” she said.
Canada’s top courts have rejected efforts by Pastine’s organisation and Amnesty to ensure that Afghans captured and imprisoned by Canadian soldiers in war have access to the Charter of Rights under the Canadian constitution.
Nonetheless, Federal Court judge Anne McTavish ruled in one 2008 judgment that the two human rights organisations have demonstrated “substantial evidence with respect to the alleged inadequacies in the safeguards that have been put into place to this point to protect detainees transferred to Afghan authorities by the Canadian Forces.”
She cited eight complaints of abuse in Afghan detention centres where prisoners were kicked, beaten with electrical cables, given electric shocks, cut, burned, shackled, and made to stand for days at a time with their heads raised over their heads.
“While it is possible that these complaints were fabricated, it is noteworthy that the methods of torture described by detainees are consistent with the type of torture practices that are employed in Afghan prisons as recorded in independent country condition reports, including emanating from DFAIT [Department of Foreign Affairs and International Relations,” Judge McTavish added.
Both the Canadian MPs and the independent Military Police Complaints Commission have been prevented from gaining substantial access to internal Canadian military documents on the transferring of Afghan detainees, compared to what is available in other NATO countries that face the same issue in the war against the Taliban, states Amir Attaran, University of Ottawa law professor and former counsel for Amnesty International.
“The Canadian military has been unduly backward on any question to do with detainees,” he told IPS.
Meanwhile, he continued, “The British are handing over a million pages of documents and they are conceding before the courts, ‘yes we have a torture problem [with regards to Afghan detainees],'” Attaran said.
Canadians know from media reports that several hundred Afghan prisoners were transferred two years ago, but no information has been made available from Canada’s military since then on the subject, he added.
“There is no evidence implicating Canadian boots on the ground in Afghanistan [in torture themselves] It isn’t there. But what is happening is the Canadian military is obstructing [the probe of allegations regarding transfer].”
However, Philippe Lagassé, who teaches defence studies at the University of Ottawa, told IPS that resistance to releasing information pervades the entire Canadian bureaucratic culture and there is little that opposition MPs can do about it if the government in power – Liberal or Conservative – does not wish to free up access to information.
“The Canadian government tends to be more secretive overall. This isn’t just a defence or military issue. In effect, it comes down to the power of legislative committees. The committees in the U.S. and UK are strong and are able to get documents out into the public domain more effectively. Also, Canada’s access to information laws are stricter,” he noted.
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