In a poll conducted by Harris Decima this week, 51 per cent of respondents believed that during 2006 and 2007 the government of Canada sanctioned the transfer of Afghan prisoners into the likelihood of torture, and then suppressed diplomatic reports that those prisoners were in fact being tortured.
Proving the adage that you can fool some of the people all of the time, 25 per cent believed that Richard Colvin, formerly a high-ranking Canadian diplomat in Afghanistan and since promoted to a senior security position at our embassy in Washington, made the whole thing up. They held that belief despite the fact that no motive has yet been assigned to this alleged act of career-suicide.
For Colvin’s attackers, on the other hand, motive abounds. The whiff of war crimes has hung about the transfer of Afghan prisoners from the start. The deal signed by Rick Hillier in 2005 to hand prisoners over to the Afghans was almost a carbon copy of the ones signed by the British and the Dutch, but for one omission: it contained no provision for oversight of the prisoners’ treatment after transfer.
Colvin’s testimony, backed up by written evidence, is that as early as May of 2006 he notified his superiors that those prisoners were being tortured. At least one such report reached the office of Defence Minister Peter MacKay. If MacKay had reason to suspect that Canada’s detainees were being tortured and did nothing to prevent it, he could be facing very serious charges under international and Canadian war crimes legislation. No wonder he’s lashing out.
The Conservative attack against Colvin, led by MacKay but apparently scripted by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his office, has been vicious, scurrilous and so hard to believe that, according to the poll, 60 per cent of their own supporters remain unconvinced. And no wonder: observe a few of the tactics they’ve tried.
Whenever any member of the government refers to the Afghan prisoners, they insert the word Taliban into the sentence, working to create the impression that each and every person detained by Canadian forces throws acid at schoolgirls and is trained to make up lies about having been tortured.
Canadians aren’t fooled by this. Even experienced police officers in peacetime make mistakes. That’s why there are courts. And in fact, the Canadian-mentored Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission has asserted that many of the detainees in question were “farmers and taxi drivers.”
All week MacKay was in the news, repeating the mantra that Colvin had produced “not one scintilla” of hard evidence that any prisoner handed over by Canada had been tortured.
On Wednesday, Hillier testified that Colvin’s claims were “ludicrous.”
But by now we’ve all heard Michael Semple, EU diplomat and a noted expert on Afghanistan describe Colvin as “rock solid,” and defend his claims as “absolutely credible.”
Semple told the Toronto Star that “We all worked on it, and we appropriately compared our notes, in terms of understanding what was happening on torture inside the Afghan intelligence service.”
Colvin’s testimony is backed up by reports from prisoners, prison officials, human rights monitors, the Red Cross, journalists, and fellow diplomats.
MacKay’s denials are supported only by others who might face criminal prosecution when all the facts are known. But leave aside the question of who is most believable and take a look at what they’re saying.
Colvin’s reports allude to Red Cross concerns over abuse and failure to track prisoners after hand-over to Afghan authorities. The government’s oft-repeated response is that Colvin presented no evidence that would stand up in court. Do they expect Canadians to believe that diplomatic reports from war zones are commonly ignored unless they come packaged as legal briefs, ready to prosecute?
On the question of evidence, Colvin’s testimony is either supported or contradicted by the reports he circulated, both on paper and by e-mail. Here the government expects us to hold two contradictory ideas in our minds. First, we are told that these reports were of so little significance that they never reached the ears of generals or cabinet ministers, and then we hear that they can’t be released to a Parliamentary committee for reasons of national security.
Canadians are not fooled. Neither are we properly informed, yet. We need to know whether senior politicians and military commanders are implicated in, or even guilty of, war crimes.
We won’t find out listening to MacKay, Harper and Hillier vilify a respected Canadian diplomat. We need to see the paper trail. We need to get the story out of the politicized sphere of a parliamentary committee, and before a judge.
So long as the Conservatives continue to resist calling a full, judicial public inquiry, the question will hover over the detainee transfer scandal: what exactly are they trying to hide?
Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.