afghan prisoner abuse. who knew and when

The Harper government doesn't want Richard Colvin to speak to the Military Police Complaints Commission.

The Harper government doesn’t want Richard Colvin to speak to the Military Police Complaints Commission. No surprise there, since the former senior diplomat is ready to present some very damning evidence to suggest that cabinet either knew or should have known that between 2005 and 2007 Canadian forces were being asked to commit war crimes in Afghanistan.

Citing grounds of national security, government lawyers have moved to block Colvin and 21 others from testifying at the inquiry into whether Canadian military police knowingly handed Afghan prisoners over to torturers.

Colvin has already sent the commission an affidavit stating that between 2006 and 2007, when serving as one of Canada’s senior diplomats in Afghanistan, he sent 19 reports detailing “serious, imminent and alarming” concerns about prisoner abuse.

The affidavit goes on to say that Colvin made certain that the top civil servants in both Foreign Affairs and Defense as well as senior military commanders were aware of his reports. Peter McKay and Gordon O’Connor, then ministers of those departments, this week denied all knowledge of the reports.

O’Connor told Global TV, “I always tell the truth and I said it in Parliament, I said it in committees and I’ll say it today: I was never made aware of any allegations of prisoner abuse, period. Nobody came to me and said, ‘Minister, there are prisoners being mistreated.’ Nobody.”

It’s possible this may be true. Truth, they say, is often stranger than fiction. Maybe O’Connor was so irrelevant to the running of the department that the top civil servants didn’t bother telling him about allegations that he, they, and members of the military were involved in serious war crimes.

Make no mistake, war crimes are exactly what are alleged here.

To knowingly hand prisoners into torture violates the Geneva Conventions, and a military commander or political leader who orders, condones, or turns a blind eye is as guilty, or more so, than the soldier on the ground.

Since December 2005, Canadian forces have been handing prisoners over to the Afghan authorities. Prior to that they handed them to the Americans, who were themselves practising various forms of torture at the time. In the original deal, signed by General Rick Hillier, there was no provision for oversight of the detainees after the handover. In essence, the Afghans could do what they liked with them.

In April 2006, when NDP defense critic Dawn Black called on O’Connor to renegotiate the agreement to include oversight, the minister insisted there was no need because “The Red Cross and the Red Crescent are charged with ensuring that prisoners are not abused.”

In later statements he went on to claim that “… the International Red Cross or Red Crescent supervise the detainees,” and “the president of the Red Cross also said that basically our procedures are absolutely spotless. He’s quite pleased with what we do with prisoners.”

A Red Cross spokesperson denied all of these statements. The Red Cross, in fact, never monitors and reports on human rights, for fear of being barred from the places where they are needed most. O’Connor has never explained the clear contradiction between his public statements and the facts.

In March of 2007, the US State Department released its report on Afghan prisons, detailing such practices as “pulling out fingernails and toenails, burning with hot oil, beatings, sexual humiliation and sodomy”.

And then in May, Abdul Qadar Noorzai, the Kandahar regional head of the AIHRC, told Globe and Mail reporter Graeme Smith, “The NDS is torturing detainees, I’ve heard stories of blood on the walls. It’s a terrifying place: dark, dirty and bloody. When you hear about this place, no man feels comfortable with himself.”

Smith spoke to 30 men whom Canadian troops had handed over to NDS, Afghanistan’s secret police. They had been “beaten, whipped, starved, frozen, choked and subjected to electric shocks during interrogation.” Smith describes them as “broken husks” of men, with “quiet voices and trembling hands” who can’t sleep, who complain of chronic pain, and who “forget the simplest things, such as remembering to pull down their pants when they use the toilet.”

O’Connor, McKay and their colleagues already face a credibility problem with respect to the Afghan detainees, since the things they claim not to have known were common knowledge. What more are they trying to hide by blocking so many witnesses from testifying at the inquiry? Canadians need answers. What did the Conservatives know, and when did they know it? For O’Connor, McKay, and Harper to hide behind the veil of national security is to conflate the nation’s safety with their own political fortunes.

Kind of like putting party logos on government cheques, you might say.

Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.