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A man Afghan authorities suspect of insurgency-related activities is interrogated during a joint Canadian-Afghan army patrol in the Panjwaii District of Kandahar province on July 2, 2009. (COLIN PERKEL/The Canadian Press)
A man Afghan authorities suspect of insurgency-related activities is interrogated during a joint Canadian-Afghan army patrol in the Panjwaii District of Kandahar province on July 2, 2009. (COLIN PERKEL/The Canadian Press)

Opposition aims to block diplomat's testimony on detainee case Add to ...

A high-ranking Canadian diplomat is jetting back from a Beijing posting to defend his record against allegations that Canada transferred prisoners to certain torture in Afghanistan - but opposition parties may not let him testify.

David Mulroney, currently Canada's ambassador to China, served as the government's point man and chief fixer on Afghanistan until May. He was singled out by Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin during explosive testimony last week as one of the senior officials who tried to contain and suppress his warnings about the torture of Afghan detainees in 2006 and early 2007.

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But opposition parties are leery of giving Mr. Mulroney a public platform to beat back Mr. Colvin's charges before they have all the facts in hand.

The NDP, the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois are demanding the Tories release a long list of documents linked to Mr. Colvin's testimony before they allow Mr. Mulroney a public rejoinder. In a minority government, the opposition parties together have a majority of seats on a committee and can control its agenda if they work in concert.

Mr. Colvin reignited the long-simmering debate over Canada's handling of detainees when he told a parliamentary committee Nov. 18 that all prisoners captured by Canadian soldiers and handed over to Afghan authorities in 2006 and early 2007 were tortured - and that many were innocent.

Mr. Mulroney has sent a letter to the Commons committee on Afghanistan saying that he wants to "set the record straight" regarding "very serious allegations" made by Mr. Colvin. A career public servant, Mr. Mulroney served until May 2009 as deputy minister of Ottawa's task force on Afghanistan.

The Tories have been trying to arrange for Mr. Mulroney to testify this Thursday, hoping to get it out of the way before Prime Minister Stephen Harper flies to China next week for a groundbreaking official visit. Word that Canada's ambassador to China has been fingered in a cover-up of Afghan detainees has already made headlines there.

In an apparent indication of how he would challenge Mr. Colvin's testimony, Mr. Mulroney added that he "encouraged officials to report freely and honestly, while expecting them to meet the highest standards of accuracy, objectivity and professionalism."

Mr. Mulroney also insisted in the letter to committee chair Rick Casson that Ottawa has been mindful of the possibility for abuse in Afghanistan.

"We have always recognized that that human rights situation in Afghanistan was cause for concern," he wrote.

Mr. Mulroney will be arriving back in Ottawa late Tuesday night, officials said. As Canada's ambassador to China he's supposed to be devoting his time right now to laying the groundwork for Mr. Harper's official visit, which begins in Beijing Dec. 2.

Prime Minister's Office spokesman Dimitri Soudas accused opposition parties of playing games on detainees by blocking Mr. Mulroney.

"If the opposition were serious about finding answers, they would allow him to appear before the committee," Mr. Soudas said.

Opposition MPs however say they can't properly question Mr. Mulroney without access to the uncensored versions of e-mails, briefing notes and memos that make up the background story behind Mr. Colvin's testimony. The Tories have already dismissed calls for a far more thorough public inquiry into detainees.

"We don't want to give Mr. Mulroney a microphone so he can say, 'Here's the government's position.' We've heard the cassette," Bloc defence critic Claude Bachand said.

Liberal MP Bryon Wilfert said each party only gets seven minutes per round of questions and answers at committee and that means they can't afford to be ill prepared in quizzing Mr. Mulroney.

The opposition request for uncensored documents is a very tall order. The Tory government has already fought several times against requests by groups such as Amnesty International to get unredacted versions of internal documents on the treatment of detainees. Ottawa has argued this would pose a security threat.

New Democrat foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said the Conservatives have forced opposition parties into the position of delaying Mr. Mulroney's testimony in order to get documents because the government has rejected holding a public probe that might have produced them.

In the Commons, Defence Minister Peter MacKay offered a vague pledge to release information but suggested his motive would be to shed light on detainee transfers in Afghanistan under the former Liberal government.

"We will look at the documents that are going to be placed before the parliamentary committee, going back beyond the time that we took office. We will see what [the Liberal]government's record was and how it stacks up against the efforts that we have made to improve the conditions in prison," Mr. MacKay said.

It was not clear just what documents Mr. MacKay was promising, but Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff immediately seized on it as a pledge.

Separately, the Canadian government said Monday it halted detainee transfers twice in 2009 because of concerns over the treatment of prisoners.

Mr. MacKay said the suspensions came after Afghan authorities failed to honour an agreement with Ottawa that gives Canada guaranteed access to prisons where detainees are being held.

"Most recently the reason that the transfers stopped was that the Afghan officials were not living up to ... expectations," Mr. MacKay told the Commons.

Mr. Harper, briefly in Ottawa between trips to India and Trinidad, skipped yesterday's raucous Question Period - which was dominated by detainee questions - to instead pose for a photo with Canada's men's lacrosse team.

"It's significant that the prime minister was at a photo op a kind of a hop, skip and a jump from Parliament Hill instead of being in the House responding to questions that Canadians want answered because they're questions about his leadership," Mr. Ignatieff said.

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