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Canadian troops detain an Afghan man during Operation Medusa in the Panjwaii district of Kandahar province on Sept. 5, 2006.
Canadian troops detain an Afghan man during Operation Medusa in the Panjwaii district of Kandahar province on Sept. 5, 2006.

Globe editorial

Public interest goes private Add to ...

Barring the doors of a hearing on whether Canada violated international laws related to torture goes against this country's history and basic democratic norms. There is a presumption of openness in public hearings - in court, in Parliament, in quasi-judicial bodies. Yet it was overcome yesterday at the Military Police Complaints Commission in Ottawa without the media being given a warning, or a chance to argue for openness, or to find out a concrete justification for the closed hearing.

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There is an overwhelming public interest in the possible Canadian involvement, even indirectly, in torture abroad. That is why the MPCC called this inquiry the Afghanistan Public Interest Hearings. Public interest hearings held in private are at risk of absurdity.

Was the closing of the hearing justified? It is impossible to know. All that is known is the justice department's nebulous, stated reason - national security. The MPCC did not bother to offer any reason at all; it merely advised that the hearings were going in-camera.

"National security" is not some magical incantation that causes the Constitution to be punted out the window. It needs to be explained, and weighed against the principle of openness. How would a hearing on the alleged torture of detainees turned over to Afghan authorities by Canadian military police in 2007 affect national security today? No one has even attempted an answer. The government is creating more suspicion and distrust, unnecessarily, if its reasons for requesting a closed hearing are sound.

Openness is not a principle that can be waived by the parties to a hearing. Constitutionally, it belongs to the public and the media. Yet Glenn Stannard, a former Windsor, Ont., police chief who is the MPCC's interim chairman, appears (insofar as one can perceive matters through a closed door) not to have defended the principle adequately. When the government asked, at an in-camera hearing yesterday, for two days of closed hearings, only Amnesty International and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, which brought the complaint about alleged torture, were there to debate it.

The government has now agreed to release an unredacted transcript today, but did not want reporters to see the witnesses. If there were legitimate concerns for the witnesses' safety, there may have been less restrictive options available, such as having the individuals testify from behind a screen. The media and the public should not simply be shunted aside when constitutional values are at stake.

The closing of the hearing is consistent with the government's repeated attempts to deny access to public documents to the media, the MPCC, Parliament and others, to attack the diplomat Richard Colvin for his comments at a committee hearing, and to decline to continue the appointment of Peter Tinsley, the MPCC chairman who ordered the hearings. He was an impressive figure, having served as an international prosecutor in Bosnia and as a lead prosecutor of Canadian Forces members for acts in Somalia. His independence and judgment were unassailable.

Canadians have a right to the broadest possible airing of torture allegations involving this country. If the MPCC does not defend that right, how can it be trusted to get to the bottom of the allegations?

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