According to an article in last week’s La Presse, Canadian forces in Afghanistan are still delivering prisoners into the hands of torturers.
Despite an agreement signed last May between Ottawa and the Karzai government, the Afghan Human Rights Commission reports that “a third of prisoners are still tortured and NATO knows it.”
Three detainees in a Kandahar jail relate that, after being turned over by Canadian forces to the Afghan secret police they were “hit with bricks, given electric shocks and had their fingernails pulled out.”
One man said the Canadians had given him a paper promising he would not be tortured in police custody.
The secret police ripped it up, and then tortured him for 20 days.
In a related story, US President Bush refused to acknowledge last week that waterboarding is torture.
Waterboarding is the practice of stuffing a person’s mouth with a rag, or wrapping his or her face in polythene, and then pouring water into the lungs until the subject is close to drowning, and expects to die.
CIA agents subjected to waterboarding are said to have lasted an average of 14 seconds before calling mercy.
Dr. Allen Keller, the director of the Bellevue/N.Y.U. Program for Survivors of Torture, has treated several victims of waterboarding and reports that some “were still traumatized years later,” and that one patient couldn’t take showers, and panicked when it rained.
Waterboarding, or tortura de agua, dates back at least to the Inquisition, where it was practiced alongside such niceties as the rack, thumbscrews and hot irons.
If carried too far it can result in damage to the lungs, excruciating pain, and finally death by asphyxiation.
Many conservative Americans, including the current administration, defend tortures such as waterboarding on the grounds that they extract information that can prevent terror attacks.
The Inquisition demonstrated the value of such information — its victims confessed by the thousands to having flown on broomsticks and mated with demons.
When Canada first went to war in Afghanistan we were turning prisoners over to the US military, but the public became increasingly aware of waterboarding, of sexual humiliation, beatings, and dog attacks on naked prisoners in Abu Ghraib, Bagram and Guantanamo.
In response to a public outcry, Canada stopped handing prisoners over to the US military, and instead began to pass them on to those champions of human rights, the Afghan National Security Directorate.
The plan was devised by Canada’s military commander Rick Hillier — he of the infamous “detestable murderers and scumbags” remark.
When the Globe and Mail exposed reports of torture against Canadian detainees in Afghan custody earlier this year, the government tried to dismiss the evidence as Taliban lies and trickery, appearing to contradict themselves a week later when they signed a new agreement with the Karzai government providing for better Canadian monitoring of prisoners after hand-over.
Last week’s report makes it clear that the May agreement doesn’t prevent Canadian detainees from being tortured in Afghan prisons.
Once again, the government is pretending that these accusations have been cooked up by the Taliban, once again ignoring evidence to the contrary from the AHRC.
After six years of the War on Terror, it’s possible in the Land of the Free to debate human rights abuses, to excuse them, and to practice them as an open secret.
Canada isn’t ready for that debate yet.
It’s still a given here that torture is wrong.
But when we brush allegations of torture aside, when we play fast and loose with the truth about detainee abuse, we are stepping down that dangerous path.
Having followed our powerful neighbours into the War on Terror, we’re in danger next of chasing them blindly down the war crimes trail like faithful, thoughtless pets.
The Afghan secret policeman who tore up the Canadian guarantee of safety is reported to have told his prisoner, “We’re not in Canada here, the Canadians are dogs.”
I think the White House would agree.
Dogs are loyal.
Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.