Afghan torture: the evidence mounts

In the weeks since Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin's stark testimony on the transfer of Afghan detainees into the hands of known torturers, opposition parties have demanded explanations, called for a public inquiry, and questioned the honesty of senior c

In the weeks since Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin’s stark testimony on the transfer of Afghan detainees into the hands of known torturers, opposition parties have demanded explanations, called for a public inquiry, and questioned the honesty of senior cabinet members, but they have refrained from calling for resignations – until now.

This week, Chief of Defence Staff General Walter Natynczyk revealed Canadian troops handed a prisoner over to Afghan police, and upon followup discovered he had been badly beaten. These facts put to rest Defence Minister Peter MacKay’s claim that there is “not one scintilla” of evidence that any captive of Canadian forces had ever been abused by Afghan authorities.

Now the demands for MacKay’s resignation are universal.

Opposition parties are right to demand the minister’s resignation, but they’re doing it for the wrong reason.

Ever since Colvin’s testimony, MacKay has sidetracked the story by insisting he had no credible proof Canada’s detainees had been tortured. By tying resignation demands to the explicit proof of abuse, the opposition is playing into this narrative.

They’re doing so because the real story is slightly harder to tell, and doesn’t fit well into two-minute sound bites.

Canada’s treatment of detainees in Afghanistan is questionable, and apparently criminal, with or without proof that any particular prisoner was beaten or tortured.

For very good reasons, international law prohibits the handover of prisoners into a situation where there is a danger of abuse. That is what Canada appears to have done, and what MacKay, Harper and colleagues appear to have condoned.

The real story is less attractive to the Liberals, because it begins on their watch.

A Liberal government gave blood-and-guts General Rick Hillier carte blanche to create a prisoner transfer agreement with Afghanistan, and failed to correct his apparently deliberate omission of the very necessary oversight provisions that could have been used to protect transferred detainees from abuse, torture and even murder.

Colvin’s testimony centred around some quite incontestable facts. Canada was handing prisoners over to Afghan police and security forces. It was common knowledge these authorities used torture.

Canada failed to keep proper records of transfers, and had no system to track their treatment after handover.

The Red Cross took the unusual step of warning Canadian diplomats their detainees were in grave danger. Colvin made repeated attempts to warn government and military officials of this. He was ignored.

That’s all the case that’s needed.

Arresting people and handing them over to known torturers is a war crime. Not that MacKay or Harper are in any danger of being charged – war crimes trials are for losers – but as Canadians examine their government’s behaviour we don’t need proof that they knew of any particular detainee who was transferred. We don’t excuse the monkey with his hands over his eyes because he sees no evil.

MacKay has changed his tune this week. He’s now saying that Canada never “willfully” transferred detainees to be tortured. By a bit of procedural trickery the Conservatives managed to keep the testimony of cabinet ministers down to 20 minutes apiece, so there wasn’t much time to question what exactly that means, but it makes a good sound bite for MacKay’s core supporters to latch onto.

From a political point of view, opposition parties may have made the right decision when they refrained from calling for MacKay’s blood until there was specific evidence of abuse – sometimes it’s best not to fire till you see the whites of their eyes. But they took a big chance in allowing the Conservatives to set the agenda with it’s “no clear evidence” story. MacKay almost slipped past them.

Now, with the number of Canadian ambassadors signing on to a letter condemning the government’s treatment of Colvin at 72 and rising, and Colvin about to testify again to set the record straight, MacKay is on the run. Don’t expect him to run away from his cabinet post though. As the man who brought the Progressive Conservatives under the heel of the Reformers, he’s far too powerful to ditch.

A full judicial public inquiry into this affair is the best way to get the full truth out, and for that reason it will never happen under a Conservative government.

That is a situation Canada desperately needs to correct.

It’s not just MacKay that needs to go, it’s the whole sorry cabal.

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

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