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Hillier: Torture claims were 'ludicrous;' lacking in substance Add to ...

The architects of Canada's military mission in southern Afghanistan dismissed as ludicrous and lacking in substance a diplomat's explosive allegations that the military and government ignored his warnings that prisoners were being handed over to face torture.

Retired general Rick Hillier, who led the military as chief of the defence staff when the Canadian Forces moved into Afghanistan's deadly Kandahar province in 2006, told a parliamentary committee that memos from diplomat Richard Colvin from mid-2006 to mid-2007 contained no real alarms about torture that would cause military brass to act.

Mr. Hillier, insisting the diplomat had no basis for his sweeping claims, ridiculed the allegation that all detainees handed over to Afghans were probably tortured. "How ludicrous a statement is that?" he said.

Mr. Hillier said he didn't read Mr. Colvin's reports at the time, but has looked at them since, and sees no reason his staff should have alerted him.

"There was simply nothing there ... to warrant the intervention of the chief of defence staff," Mr. Hillier said of the reports, which the Harper government has refused to make public.

Mr. Colvin served briefly as the political adviser in Kandahar in 2006 before becoming the political counsellor in Canada's embassy in Kabul, the second-ranking diplomat at what was then a small embassy.

He testified last week that Ottawa ignored and tried to suppress his warnings that prisoners were tortured after Canadian soldiers handed them over to Afghanistan's intelligence service in 2006 and early 2007.

Mr. Hillier told MPs that Mr. Colvin's early reports - which the diplomat has said concerned the treatment and monitoring of detainees - "said nothing about abuse, nothing about torture, or anything else that would have caught my attention or the attention of others."

When Canada stopped detainee transfers in 2007, Mr. Hillier said, "we didn't base it on hearsay, hypothesis or second-hand information. We didn't base it on Taliban detainees saying things without corroborating evidence."

Retired Lieutenant-General Michel Gauthier, who was head of overseas deployment in 2006 and 2007, said opposition MPs used Mr. Colvin's testimony to smear him.

"As we were sitting at home watching television, my wife and I were mortified to hear a member of this committee appear on a national news network, name me and three others by name, and state as fact that we had either been negligent or that we had lied - effectively branding us war criminals."

Major-General David Fraser, the first Canadian commander in Kandahar, also testified at the committee. All of the generals said they were aware of assessments by independent rights groups that prisoners in Afghan jails faced torture, but Mr. Hillier said reports by groups such as the Red Cross found no such problems, and that he tried to balance unsubstantiated reports with specifics.

And they conceded that, in retrospect, detainee-transfer arrangements in place until May, 2007, which left monitoring to independent human-rights agencies, "were not perfect."

Mr. Hillier tore into Mr. Colvin's assertion that most detainees handed over to the Afghans were innocent.

He described the detainees as "men who gave up after violent firefights where we had taken casualties ... men with explosive residue ... on their hands and gunshot residue all over their bodies."

He said Mr. Colvin was off base in asserting that most of the detainees were unlucky civilians caught by mistake. "Nothing could be farther from the truth," the former general said. "We detained under violent actions people trying to kill our sons and daughters."

He said that perhaps Canadian soldiers took the occasional innocent into custody, but insisted this was rare.

"Yes, we probably detained the occasional farmer - and whether they were farmers by day and Taliban by night, which is often the case, is something that is very difficult to discern."

Mr. Hillier said Canada's military found itself in a ferocious fight when it set up in Kandahar in March, 2006, to fight the Taliban.

"All the sudden in 2006, we found ourselves in the middle of a war... we found ourselves up against a determined and tough enemy," Mr. Hillier recalled.

He said the Taliban were massing against Canadian and other NATO forces, trying to take over Kandahar city and "discredit NATO, discredit Canada and probably cause the fall of the Afghan government itself."

Mr. Hillier said he became keen to testify after "hearing myself described as both a liar and negligent in my duties."

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WHAT'S NEXT

The battle over documents

Opposition MPs at the Commons Afghanistan committee passed a motion demanding that diplomat Richard Colvin's yet-to-be released memos, and other files, be handed over to them.

The Afghan point man

David Mulroney, the official who quarterbacked the government-wide Afghanistan efforts, has flown back from his post as ambassador to China to testify before the committee today.

Still to come

Other senior officials are slated to testify at the committee, including Colleen Swords, a former senior Foreign Affairs official who directed detainee policy in 2006.

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