Borrowing an old lawyer's trick, the Harper government answered opposition MPs' demands for internal details of the Afghan detainee controversy with a blizzard of documents - many censored beyond comprehension.
It is the latest volley in a battle between opposition parties and the Conservative government that pits national security concerns against the will of an elected Commons. All opposition parties, representing a clear majority in Parliament, have passed a rare order-to-produce motion demanding all the records on how Canada handled foreign prisoners.
After initially suggesting they would withhold documents until a retired judge reviews the sensitive parts, the Tories yesterday changed tack - dumping 2,500 pages in the Commons. It was untranslated and uncatalogued, and there were no extra copies on hand - forcing opposition parties and journalists to wait hours for reproductions.
Whether Canadians will ever learn what lies under the heavily blacked-out sections of these records, however, is still up to former Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci. His job remains to decide if disclosure would represent a threat to this country's security.
Meanwhile, Thursday's overwhelming document dump of information, much of it missing crucial paragraphs or sentences, provided a fragmented glimpse into Ottawa's internal records on detainee matters.
In one case, a returning Royal Canadian Regiment corporal under psychiatric care told doctors that the Canadian Forces knowingly handed over prisoners to be executed by Afghan authorities in Kandahar's Panjwai district.
"His unit's directive was that if they or any other allied force were to capture an Afghan detainee they were to transfer that detainee to local authorities," a 2008 Forces National Investigative Service report said.
"After they handed over the detainee, the local authority would walk the detainee out of range and the detainee would be shot; and this occurred on more [than]one occasion. Himself, his colleagues and his chain of command were aware that the detainees would be shot upon their transfer."
The man's doctor cautioned investigators that it was possible the story never happened. "He relayed that people … coming back from Afghanistan with stress-related issues sometimes exaggerate or over-read into the event," investigators wrote. "However, the condition that [soldier]does have would not give him any reason to lie, therefore he may be telling the truth."
Yesterday, Defence Minister Peter MacKay's office said the unidentified corporal's allegations were investigated and found to be groundless. "Every time the Canadian Forces have received a credible allegation of detainee mistreatment they have acted," spokesman Jay Paxton said.
A separate record among the 2,500 pages revealed that military officials ordered big changes at Canada's holding facility for Afghan prisoners in Kandahar after an inspection visit found detainees freezing.
A report dated Jan. 29, 2008, said inspectors found detainees "huddled under blankets in sub-zero temperatures" with only coveralls for clothes. The detainees, who live in tents, "are essentially housed in the open with almost no shelter from the elements," it said. The remainder of the findings are blacked out by a censor's pen.
Inspectors insisted that military police "immediately improve the conditions for the detainees" - who were then given winter clothing, Canadian Forces-issue sleeping bags and additional overhead cover to protect them from weather.
The Tory document manoeuvre comes as a confrontation looms that may test the limits of Parliamentary privilege.
At the heart of opposition demands for more information is the question of whether Canada knowingly handed over prisoners to torture in Afghan's notorious jails.
Opposition parties are threatening to pass a motion finding Conservative cabinet ministers in contempt of Parliament for refusing to release uncensored versions of detainee records. Commons Speaker Peter Milliken is preparing to rule on whether such a condemnation would be possible.
The opposition called the tabling of incomplete and often indecipherable documents an insult. "It's slapping Parliament in the face," NDP Leader Jack Layton said.
The Tories say yesterday's release of documents will be followed by more redacted records as they become available. But they refused to release uncensored versions before Mr. Iacobucci rules on them - a task for which they have not set a deadline.
"The government has said that officials will make all relevant documents available, and the tabling … is part of that process," Justice Minister Rob Nicholson said.
Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh called for a public inquiry rather than "this haphazard job where they bring in a box here and a box there … like amateur hour."
Separately, The Globe and Mail reported this week that the U.S. will ask Canada to keep as many as 600 to 800 troops in Afghanistan after the mission is scheduled to end in 2011. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, however, said yesterday Canada has "received no such request" and exit plans are unchanged.
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