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Afghan torture: Please, Canada, follow the story

Globe and Mail parliamentary reporter Jane Taber reports this week that "After days and days of endless queries around the transfers of prisoners by Canadian soldiers, opposition interest is dwindling.

Globe and Mail parliamentary reporter Jane Taber reports this week that “After days and days of endless queries around the transfers of prisoners by Canadian soldiers, opposition interest is dwindling.” It appears that the Liberal poll-chasers have learned of similarly dwindling interest among the public, with only 22 per cent of respondents declaring that they were following the torture story.

So it would seem that for all the public gnashing of teeth over Harper’s highly questionable prorogation of Parliament, the manoeuvre has worked. The Conservatives may not have experienced the “Olympic bounce” they were hoping for, but the passage of time helped them to tap into the deep well of outrage-fatigue from which we all drink.

When the news everyday overflows with injustice, today the alleged complicity of Canadian mining companies in the murder of Mexican activists, yesterday the brutal siege of Gaza and the ongoing seizure of Palestinian lands, it’s hard to maintain an appropriate level of anger at any particular crime.

But the transfer of Afghan prisoners into the hands of torturers stands out, or ought to stand out, against a solid background of bad news for a number of reasons. The first is that we are all involved. Canada is a democracy, the people own the government, and whatever that government does, the pride and shame belong to all of us.

Much like our government, Canadians either knew, or should have known long ago, that we were placing our troops in danger of committing war crimes in Afghanistan. Up until 2005 we had them transferring prisoners into the terrible maw of the US gulag to be tortured and humiliated in Bagram, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo. After that we began handing them to the NDS, Afghanistan’s notorious secret police.

Another thing that makes the detainee scandal of particular significance is the overwhelming evidence that the Conservative government has been hiding the facts. They blocked parliamentary committees from hearing evidence on the subject. They tainted anyone raising the issue with the idiotic slander that they were Taliban sympathizers. They tried to defame whistle-blowing diplomat Richard Colvin.

They have withheld potentially damaging documents, and they shut down Parliament to avoid a vote on a public inquiry. Now, Parliament has applied its constitutional prerogative to demand the documents, the Conservatives are stalling for time by asking a retired judge to ponder the question: To what extend can the sitting government defy the constitution? (Answer: None whatsoever, but by the time he tells them that we’re all supposed to have forgotten the question.)

This scandal that Canadians have begun to shove to the back of their minds took on a new dimension last week when University of Ottawa law professor Amir Attaran explained what exactly the Conservatives are trying to cover up. Attaran has been doggedly pursuing the paper trail the government has been trying to withhold, and has found evidence that “Canada partnered deliberately with the torturers in Afghanistan for the interrogation of detainees ... so that they could be interrogated using harsher methods.”

There are degrees of culpability, and even though it’s a clear violation of international law to hand prisoners over to the likelihood of torture, it’s a great deal worse to hand them over for the purpose of torture. If that is what Canada has done, or is doing, then Canada is long overdue for a purge of its political, diplomatic, and military leadership.

In what looks like a panicked response to Attaran’s allegations, this Thursday the government tabled a pile of documents that have been redacted to the point of absurdity, while dispensing with the customary practice of providing copies for the opposition parties. They could not have expressed their contempt for Parliament more clearly had the entire Conservative caucus stood up and thumbed their noses at the members opposite.

But if there is a single reason that Canadians should not let the detainee transfer scandal slip quietly from sight, it is that the transfer of prisoners is still going on, and in all likelihood, so is the torture described by Colvin: “beatings, whipping with power cables, and the use of electricity ... sleep deprivation, use of temperature extremes, use of knives and open flames, and sexual abuse, that is, rape.”

Last week, Paul Champ, counsel for Amnesty International Canada and the BC Civil Liberties Association, told a parliamentary committee, “Our concern is that there still remains a risk of torture in Afghanistan with respect to detainees captured by Canadian forces and handed over to Afghan authorities ... We have no reason to believe that the situation has improved in Afghan prisons. We have no evidence of that.”

If Canadian troops are still knowingly sending prisoners to be beaten, whipped, electrocuted, and raped, then they and their leaders are guilty of war crimes. If we as citizens and voters let the torture continue because we got bored with the story, we are the guiltiest of all.

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