Canadians aren't buying the Harper government's assertion that there's no credible evidence Afghan detainees were tortured, a new poll suggests.
Indeed, The Canadian Press Harris-Decima survey indicates Canadians are twice as likely to believe whistleblower Richard Colvin's claim that all prisoners handed over by Canadian soldiers to Afghan authorities were likely abused and that government officials were well aware of the problem.
The poll findings come just as the government is mounting a major counter-offensive to rebut the explosive testimony of Mr. Colvin, the former No. 2 at the Canadian embassy in Kabul and now an intelligence officer at the embassy in Washington.
Rick Hillier, the former chief of defence staff, and several other top military officials are scheduled to testify Wednesday at a Commons committee that is investigating the torture claims.
Mr. Hillier has already said there was always concern about the treatment of prisoners transferred to Afghan prisons but that he doesn't remember the kind of "smoking gun" warnings Mr. Colvin says he repeatedly issued.
Mr. Hillier has his work cut out for him to convince Canadians, the poll suggests.
Fifty-one per cent of respondents said they believe Mr. Colvin's testimony to the committee last week.
In stark contrast, only 25 per cent said they believe the government's contention that the diplomat's claims are flimsy and not credible.
A majority in all regions - except Alberta where 41 per cent believed Mr. Colvin and 35 per cent the government - sided with the whistleblower.
Those who identified themselves as supporters of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives were most inclined to give the government the benefit of the doubt. But even they were almost evenly split, with 40 per cent buying the government's take on the issue and 34 per cent buying Mr. Colvin's.
Moreover, fully 70 per cent said it's unacceptable that Canadian forces would hand over prisoners if it's likely they'll be tortured. No less than 60 per cent in any region and even a majority of Conservative supporters subscribed to this view.
Harris-Decima chairman Allan Gregg said the results suggest the government's initial strategy of attacking Mr. Colvin's credibility has backfired badly.
"You don't need to be a rocket scientist or a pollster to know that there's something unseemly about taking an allegation that appears to be heartfelt and twisting it around and throwing it back in someone else's face," Mr. Gregg said in an interview.
He said the government would've been better advised to take Mr. Colvin's allegations "under advisement" rather than vilifying him as "a nutbar or a rogue kind of dupe of the Taliban."
Mr. Gregg said Canadians' deep misgivings about the mission in Afghanistan, combined with their underlying belief that Canada is a peaceful country that should never condone torture, likely predisposes them to believe Mr. Colvin.
"We recognize that we may never be a military power or an economic power but we like to see ourselves as a moral power. The notion that somehow we might be knowingly giving up detainees for potential torture flies directly in the face of that sensibility."
The government seems to have softened its tone somewhat this week, acknowledging that it has halted prisoner transfers on several occasions and altered its policy on such transfers in 2007, partly based on Mr. Colvin's advice.
Mr. Harper promised Tuesday to release all "legally available" documents related to the matter. In his first public comments on the controversy, Mr. Harper referred to Mr. Colvin's allegations as one person's opinion.