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To the torture charges, the Harper government's response is to deny, smear and bully

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Respected Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin, a highly credible source, told a House of Commons committee on Wednesday that all of the captives Canadian soldiers transferred to local authorities in 2006-2007 likely ended up being tortured. Colvin, who served in Afghanistan for 17 months, began sending warnings that this was happening in May 2006. He transmitted reports to senior members of the Canadian military including Lieutenant-General Michel Gauthier, who was then the commander of Canadian Expeditionary Force Command, which oversees foreign deployments. Colvin told the committee that he believes that Gauthier would have relayed these highly disturbing warnings to General Rick Hillier, who was then the country's top soldier. Others who were alerted to Colvin's reports included: David Mulroney, former deputy minister of the Afghanistan Task Force in the Privy Council Office; and Margaret Bloodworth, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's national security advisor.

This matter went right to the top. It doesn't pass the laugh test that Hillier and Harper were not informed about these warnings.

Colvin told the committee that the government's response to the warnings was to try to shut him down: "At first, we were mostly ignored. However, by April 2007, we were receiving written messages from the senior Canadian government co-ordinator for Afghanistan to the effect that I should be quiet and do what I was told, and also phone messages from a DFAIT assistant deputy minister suggesting that, in future, we should not put things on paper, but instead use the telephone."

Having failed to block Colvin from testifying, the Conservative machine has gone into overdrive to blacken his name, to smear his reputation.

Rejecting opposition demands for an inquiry into Colvin's allegations, Defence Minister Peter MacKay told the House that "there are incredible holes in the story that have to be examined."

In any self-respecting democracy, an inquiry would be the automatic response to charges of this seriousness. Remember, Colvin remains a trusted employee of the government who works on intelligence files at the Canadian Embassy in Washington.

But the Conservatives are renowned for smearing critics. A couple of years ago, they derided the leader of the NDP as "Taliban Jack" for his suggestion that NATO should negotiate with elements of the Taliban. That is now the policy not only of Canada in Afghanistan, but of the Karzai government in Kabul.

If MacKay's response is to dismiss the charges and shut the door to hearing anything further about them, Rick Hillier depicted the fuss about the allegations as mere "howling at the moon."

"I don't remember reading a single one of those cables [from Mr. Colvin] ... He doesn't stick out in my mind," Hillier said. Then he made the incredible statement that "Even in our own prisons [in Canada] somebody can get beaten up. We know that."

The nation's former top soldier apparently doesn't know the difference between life in a Canadian prison and the gruesome and systematic torture of detainees, many of whom were innocent bystanders when picked up by Canadian soldiers, according to Colvin.

Former Conservative Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor rushed to protect the higher-ups in the Harper government when he said: "Reports like this [Colvin's] may have occurred and gone through the system and people at lower levels may have decided there's no credibility to different reports." The mention of Gordon O'Connor brings to mind the fact that this is not the first time we have heard credible evidence of Canadians handing over prisoners to be tortured in Afghanistan.

In the winter of 2007, serious allegations were made that the Canadian forces in Afghanistan had been handing over captured insurgents to the Afghan authorities only to have them tortured. In a series of articles that shone the spotlight on the issue, the Globe and Mail created a political firestorm for the Harper government.

From the early days of Canada's military mission in Afghanistan, the military had advised the government that the task of building and running Canadian detention facilities to house captured insurgents was prohibitively expensive and beyond the military's existing expertise. The practice, therefore, was to turn prisoners over to the Americans or to the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai.

In 2005, Bill Graham, Canada's Liberal Minister of National Defence, was concerned with the detainee issue and badly wanted an agreement with the Afghan authorities. The minister sought a transfer arrangement that would specify that detainees turned over by Canada would enjoy Geneva Convention rights. The deal would have to include an understanding that both Canada and Afghanistan would maintain written files on all prisoners, and that the prisoners could be visited by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and by the Karzai government's Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.

As it turned out, the deal with the Afghans was only reached in December 2005 by Chief of Defence Staff, General Rick Hillier, who signed the understanding with Afghanistan's Defence Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak in Kabul. While the deal finalized by the General included the stipulations that Graham had wanted, it was to prove disastrously inadequate. Unlike agreements signed by other NATO countries with the Afghans including the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, Canada's agreement contained no stipulation that Canada could follow-up on transferred detainees to ensure that they were not being tortured in Afghan prisons. By the time the deal was signed, the federal election that would bring Stephen Harper's Conservatives to office was underway, and it was the Harper government that would be roiled by the fallout in the early months of 2007.

Evidence mounted that prisoners in Afghan hands were being mistreated. In their book, The Unexpected War, Janice Gross Stein and Eugene Lang reported that the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, Amnesty International, and Canadian Louise Arbour, the UN Commissioner for Human Rights "had concluded that abuse, torture, and extrajudicial killing were routinely inflicted on people in Afghan custody."

Pointing the finger directly at the Canadian government was University of Ottawa Law Professor Amir Attaran. Using the federal Access to Information Act, Professor Attaran obtained documents from which he concluded that Afghan detainees appear to have been beaten while detained and interrogated by Canadian soldiers. The professor used this information to request an investigation into the treatment of the detainees by the Military Police Complaints Commission, a civilian body established to investigate complaints against the Canadian military. In light of these allegations, in February 2007, the Canadian military launched investigations into the matter of detainee abuse by Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan.

The allegations brought to light by Professor Attaran stemmed from an incident in April 2006 when Canadian soldiers captured three Afghans. The heavily redacted record Professor Attaran obtained through Access to Information referred to injuries sustained by the prisoners while they were under Canadian custody. Subsequently, the three men were handed over to the Afghans. In the winter of 2007 when officers from the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service set out to talk to the men about the allegations that they had been injured while in Canadian custody, the men could not be found.

The Globe and Mail continued to unearth information that heightened the pressure on the Harper government. A Globe reporter managed to find and interview thirty former detainees who said they had been transferred from Canadian to Afghan jurisdiction and then had been tortured while in Afghan hands. While these allegations could not be independently verified, a powerful case was being made that Canada had turned over prisoners with little thought for their fate and that the government had tried to cover up its own shoddy performance.

Making matters much worse for Ottawa was the performance of Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor in the House of Commons. On the matter of the treatment of detainees handed over to the Afghans, the minister told MPs that the International Committee of the Red Cross was monitoring the condition of these detainees. In May 2006, O'Connor declared in the Commons that "the Red Cross or the Red Crescent is responsible to supervise their treatment once the prisoners are in the hands of the Afghan authorities. If there is something wrong with their treatment, the Red Cross or Red Crescent would inform us and we would take action."

In early March 2007, however, the rug was pulled out from under that position when Simon Schorno, a spokesperson for the ICRC, told the Globe and Mail that "we were informed of the agreement, but we are not a party to it and we are not monitoring the implementation of it." On March 19, 2007, O'Connor apologized to the House of Commons for the misleading statements he had made on the issue. "I fully and without reservation apologize to the House for providing inaccurate information for members," he said, adding that "the International Red Cross Committee is under no obligation to share information with Canada on the treatment of detainees transferred by Canada to Afghan authorities."

To staunch the public-relations and political calamity that had befallen them, the Harper government rushed to conclude a new agreement with the Karzai government on May 3, 2007. On paper at least, the new agreement contained additional protections for transferred detainees. Under its terms, representatives of Canada were to be accorded unfettered access to the prisoners including the right to hold private interviews with them.

That seemed to be the end of the matter, but not quite. As reported by Stein and Lang in their book, Ahmad Fahim Hakim, the deputy chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission told them that the commission could not guarantee that prisoners were not being tortured in Afghan detention centres. The commission, he said, had too few monitors, and could take up to twenty days after being notified of a problem to pay a first visit to a detainee.

Considering the unhappy history of the torture question in Afghanistan, you would think that Colvin's allegations would be received respectfully by the government and then aired before an inquiry.

But that is not how this government operates.

Deny, smear, bully. Those are the watchwords of a government that cares nothing about the truth.

I have been watching parliamentary debates for over forty years---both from the galleries and on television. No government over that span of time has come remotely close to this one in its disregard for the institution. Ministers in the Harper government don't answer the questions they are asked in the House. Instead, they deny, smear and bully.

 

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