A year-long, multimillion-dollar probe has failed to resolve one of the most heated political questions ever to dog the Harper government: Did Canadian soldiers knowingly hand over Afghan prisoners to torture?
The Conservatives had hoped a multi-partisan effort to sift through documents – which concluded Wednesday – would finally put to rest one of the most divisive subjects of their tenure.
The political furor over the treatment of Afghan detainees led the Tories to temporarily shutter Parliament during early 2010; it saw the Conservatives face the risk of a contempt ruling just months later, with the Speaker of the Commons forced to step in and urge a compromise.
But the 4,000 pages of records, released Wednesday from a process agreed to by the Conservatives, Liberals and Bloc Québécois, are still subject to significant censorship.
And there are serious questions around the process that unearthed the documents. For instance, any records that could be considered cabinet confidence or legal opinions – where some of the most vital discussion would have taken place – were excluded.
The opposition Liberals, who participated in the MP-led probe, say there are enough unanswered questions to prompt more investigation.
“I don't think the process is over in the sense that we've asked for a review and a consideration of all the documents in the government's possession,” interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae said.
“As frustrating [as this has been]and as long as it's all taken, it's still not completed.”
The Official Opposition NDP, which said the newly released documents reveal nothing substantively new, is calling for a judicial inquiry with full investigative powers.
NDP Defence critic Jack Harris said Canadians need to dig deeper because the investigation only scratched the surface and the most vital government deliberations on the matter were off-limits to the probe.
“This is turning out to be a bit of a farce, an extremely expensive year-long process that essentially kept Canadians in the dark for over a year about this and now we’ve got 362 documents with a different set of redactions,” Mr. Harris said.
The Harper government, however, declared the process “over” and quickly dispatched ministers Wednesday to trumpet the fact that no records had been found suggesting Canadian soldiers knowingly transferred prisoners to torture at the hands of Afghan jailers.
The Conservatives said the process of unearthing and scrutinizing the documents cost taxpayers $12-million, suggesting that any more probing would be fruitless.
“I suspect if we went on for 12 years and spent $120-million that some would say that wasn’t enough,” Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said.
“I think what is released does suggest that we have followed – we have followed the process that we said we would and that everything we’ve said has been proven by facts.”
The more than 4,000 pages released represent documents that MPs from the Liberals and Bloc Québécois felt should be released. But they are only a fraction of an estimated 40,000 pages of material on the matter held by the Canadian government.
Government officials were silent, however, on Wednesday when journalists tried to ascertain how many thousands of pages of documents still remain unreleased.
In a briefing, officials refused to say how many Afghan detainee documents exist in total. Nor would they provide an estimate as to what percentage the released pages represent in relation to the total available. Officials also confirmed that some documents remain in Afghanistan and have yet to be processed.
A trio of retired senior judges acted as filter for the records, considering requests from a panel of MPs to allow the release of uncensored versions of the documents.
It turned down most requests, however, and largely left existing censorship in place.
Liberal MP Stéphane Dion, one of the members of Parliament who scrutinized thousands of pages of documents, could not provide a finding in the records that showed Canada knowingly handed prisoners over to abuse.
But he said he believed, based on what he had read, that prisoners transferred from Canadian hands were later tortured by their Afghan interrogators. “The likelihood is very high,” Mr. Dion said.
He said among the records is a Jan. 18, 2008, document in which a Canadian official speaks of “patterns of possible abuse” at a facility run by Afghan’s notorious National Directorate of Security.
“How can politicians pretend there was no abuse when one of their officials was speaking about a pattern?” Mr. Dion asked.
The Geneva Convention makes it a war crime to transfer detainees to those who would abuse them and obliges the detaining power to recover transferred prisoners if they are being maltreated.
The files released Wednesday demonstrate the Canadian government in 2007 was privately fretting that its internal files would contradict its rosy messaging on Afghanistan and leave the impression it should have known about the potential for mistreatment of detainees.
Worried about a court-ordered release of documents to a human rights group in 2007, officials stewed about the revelation of “email messages that suggest the situation is worsening” and documents that “could be seen to suggest that the government is not concerned about the long-term welfare of Canadian-transferred detainees,” records show.