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A suspected Taliban prisoner is searched, handcuffed, and processed by Canadian soldiers in northern Kandahar on May 10, 2006. (JOHN D MCHUGH)
A suspected Taliban prisoner is searched, handcuffed, and processed by Canadian soldiers in northern Kandahar on May 10, 2006. (JOHN D MCHUGH)

Norman Spector

A detainee inquiry would be the smart call Add to ...

As soon as Richard Colvin had finished testifying before a parliamentary committee, it was clear only a judicial inquiry could get to the bottom of allegations of Canadian complicity in the torture of Afghan prisoners.

As in the matter of former prime minister Brian Mulroney's dealings with Karlheinz Schreiber, an inquiry would provide the opportunity for rigorous cross-examination of all the key players. And after former chief of the defence staff Rick Hillier appeared before the committee to paint Mr. Colvin as naive and his testimony as "ludicrous," we were reminded that getting to the truth will also require unravelling interdepartmental and interpersonal rivalries.

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper is refusing to go this route - which suggests the Conservatives have something to hide. If Mr. Harper's concern were truly the disclosure of sensitive material, he could give a broad mandate to someone with the highest security clearance to look into the allegations behind closed doors, following the model of Frank Iacobucci's inquiry into the detention of Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad Abou El Maati and Muayyed Nureddin.

The government maintains that the parliamentary committee doesn't have the power to demand uncensored documents, and that its recourse is to report the matter to the House of Commons. Some opposition MPs are now talking about summoning a minister before the bar of the House to demand the documents, and ultimately declaring the government in contempt of Parliament. The government says that redactions are carried out by public servants and that the proper recourse is for the House to appeal to the courts under the procedures set out in the Canada Evidence Act. Opposition MPs insist, in the name of parliamentary privilege, that these procedures don't apply to them.

Absent a public inquiry and with the government's refusal to hand over unredacted documents, what's shaping up is a replay of last fall's coalition crisis. This time, however, no one is suggesting the opposition parties can defeat the government and avoid a trip to the polls through a request to the Governor-General.

No doubt, all parties will be polling to see if the confrontation between Parliament and the PM can be ridden to electoral success. While it appears the government is losing some support, enough to dislodge it from majority territory, Mr. Harper's advisers will be mindful that the Conservatives have never been as high as they were during the coalition crisis and its aftermath. On the other hand, the opposition parties may conclude they have a better issue this time.

In my days in government, I can recall MPs arguing that non-smoking regulations in federal buildings did not apply on Parliament Hill. Today, they are on more solid political ground in demanding access to unredacted documents regarding the transfer of detainees. But fundamental to their position is the claim that laws such as the Security of Information Act and the Privacy Act do not trump their privileges as MPs. Since Canadians have the absolute right to elect MPs of dubious loyalty and probity, the government may be on more solid political and legal ground. In this regard, don't be surprised if it reminds MPs who's really supreme by asking that court for an opinion on the boundaries of parliamentary privilege.

This is not the first time serious allegations have been made against members of the Canadian Forces. Indeed, in the Somalia affair of 1993, it was alleged that Canadian soldiers themselves had beaten civilians and were directly responsible for the death of a teenager. And, as we recall, Jean Chrétien shut down the commission of inquiry before it could complete its hearings.

Mr. Harper will have one additional opportunity to do the right thing when Mr. Colvin responds in writing to the testimony of Mr. Hillier and senior Foreign Affairs officials. Let's hope he takes it and calls for a judicial inquiry.

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