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A member of Reconnaissance Platoon, 1st Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, guards six of ten suspected Taliban prisoners captured in a raid on a compound in Northern Kandahar, in this May, 2006 file photo. (JOHN D MCHUGH)
A member of Reconnaissance Platoon, 1st Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, guards six of ten suspected Taliban prisoners captured in a raid on a compound in Northern Kandahar, in this May, 2006 file photo. (JOHN D MCHUGH)

Many detainees just farmers: Afghan official Add to ...

The chief of Afghanistan's notorious intelligence agency told Canada in April of 2007 that he had no idea how many of the prisoners handed over to him by rank-and-file Canadian soldiers were in fact Taliban or just local farmers, according to a memo written by diplomat whistleblower Richard Colvin for his Ottawa superiors.

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Mr. Colvin delivered shocking testimony this week in Ottawa that has put the Conservative government on the defensive, spurred calls for a full-blown public inquiry and made senior bureaucrats scramble to explain themselves. He said all the detainees Canadians turned over to Afghan authorities were tortured. The memo suggests that most turned out to be of little value.

In fact, Amrullah Saleh, chief of Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security, told Canadians most prisoners were later released - meaning they weren't likely high-value captures, according to the memo.

Mr. Saleh told Canadians that rank-and-file soldiers weren't very good at identifying the bad guys when rounding up suspects. "He suggested that, in general, conventional forces are not necessarily the best instrument for identifying high-value combatants … most of those detained by Canadian forces, he guessed, would subsequently have been released," Mr. Colvin wrote in a memo.

Mr. Colvin widely circulated that memo among Foreign Affairs and Defence officials.

The e-mail sent April 25, 2007, obtained by The Globe and Mail, expands on testimony Mr. Colvin gave this week in which he said that all prisoners transferred to Afghan authorities by Canada in 2006 and early 2007 were tortured and most were likely innocent.

Mr. Colvin, a diplomat who served in Afghanistan for 17 months during the beginning of Canada's drive into the violent Kandahar province, has reignited questions over Canadian behaviour in the conflict.

He said higher-ups ignored and later censored his repeated, early attempts to warn Ottawa of what was happening.

The Tories have dismissed calls for an inquiry into Mr. Colvin's testimony, but a parliamentary committee delving into it is expanding the list of witnesses to be called.

Also, the senior civil servant who until recently oversaw Canada's Afghanistan mission is seeking to appear before MPs and defend his record and Ottawa's in the face of Mr. Colvin's charges.

David Mulroney, who was recently posted to China as Canada's ambassador, is planning to contact the committee and offer to testify as early as next week, a government official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the press. Mr. Mulroney wants to "set the record straight" by explaining the context around Mr. Colvin's reports and the procedures Ottawa put in place to deal with allegations of torture, the official said.

The official said Mr. Colvin's memos were not ignored, but the government sought to obtain reports on the treatment of detainees from other allies, conducted a review of the allegations, and began work on designing a system to monitor detainees. Under instructions from Mr. Mulroney, regular phone calls were established to connect Ottawa with Kabul and Kandahar, and connect civilian personnel with the military, the official said. "That's why some people were reminded to use the phone instead of simply sitting in an office writing out the same report."

The breadth of witnesses to be hauled before MPs in the weeks ahead will not only include key political players such as former defence minister Gordon O'Connor, but also the more faceless bureaucrats who were at the heart of decision-making over detainees.

Those set to testify include Colleen Swords, a onetime high-ranking Foreign Affairs official who directed detainee policy in the early days; Linda Garwood-Filbert, a Corrections Canada officer who toured Afghan jails, and Scott Proudfoot, who was instrumental in Canada's 2007 efforts to secure better monitoring of detainees.

The April 2007 Colvin memo was obtained by Amnesty International during its court battle with Ottawa over whether Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms applies to the actions of Canadian soldiers oversees.

In it, Mr. Colvin also quotes the NDS's Mr. Saleh as saying no detainee was happy with his stay in Afghan jails. "Any person held in an Afghan detention centre, even if not maltreated, 'is unlikely to come away praising the hospitality of those who detained him' said Saleh," Mr. Colvin wrote.

Paul Champ, a lawyer acting for Amnesty, said the Harper government is incorrect to dismiss Mr. Colvin's testimony by saying there are no other credible voices saying all detainees handed over to Afghan authorities are tortured.

He points out the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, which has received significant funding from the Harper government, reported in April, 2009, that more than 98 per cent of Afghan detention-centre inmates interviewed said they had been tortured.

NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said that rounding up large numbers of possibly innocent Afghans in sweeps undermines the effectiveness of the Canadian mission because it will alienate the population. That's especially true if there's little follow-up or tracking, he said. "You're sending a message that you're not able to tell who the bad guys are and who the innocents are," the NDP MP said. "You can create a supply for the insurgency."

Mr. Colvin's testimony was about 2006 and 2007, but Canadians don't know if Canadian soldiers are still rounding up large numbers of prisoners, Mr. Dewar said. The government will not say how many detainees the Canadian Forces hand over to Afghan authorities, insisting that would affect the security of military operations.

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