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Intelligence officer and ex-diplomat Richard Colvin, right, arrives at a commons special committee on Afghanistan hears witnesses on transfer of Afghan detainees on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday. (Sean Kilpatrick)
Intelligence officer and ex-diplomat Richard Colvin, right, arrives at a commons special committee on Afghanistan hears witnesses on transfer of Afghan detainees on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday. (Sean Kilpatrick)

Protest grows against Tory government's attack on Colvin Add to ...

The number of former ambassadors protesting the Conservative government's attacks on diplomat Richard Colvin is snowballing, with organizers saying the list will exceed 35 today and is headed for 50.

The initiative began days ago after more than 20 former diplomatic heads of mission banded together to speak out against Ottawa's response to Mr. Colvin's testimony on Afghan-detainee abuse. They warned that it threatens to cast a chill over the foreign service and they singled out Defence Minister Peter MacKay for having "savaged" the diplomat in public.

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"It's quite amazing," organizer and ex-Canadian ambassador Gar Pardy said of the growing response from former top diplomats. "People just want to be part of it."

Furor over the matter boiled over in the House of Commons yesterday, where Mr. MacKay faced the first public calls for his resignation over allegations that Canadian-captured prisoners handed over to Afghans were later tortured.

Although Mr. MacKay has repeatedly insisted that not a single case of torture could be proven, he acknowledged through a spokesman yesterday there is "credible evidence" that detainees transferred to Afghan security forces have been tortured.

That acknowledgment marks a significant departure for Mr. MacKay who for years has repeatedly insisted that not a single case of torture could be proven. Yesterday, his spokesman confirmed that the "minister has not denied being advised of credible evidence" of post-transfer torture.

However, Mr. McKay still maintains no absolute proof exists, his officials said yesterday.

In Parliament yesterday, the NDP said Canadians no longer have confidence in the minister.

"The minister has on nine separate occasions told the House there is not a scintilla of evidence of mistreatment even as the entire country was shown evidence that torture did take place," said the NDP's defence critic Jack Harris. "Will he resign?"

Instead, Mr. MacKay's parliamentary secretary, Laurie Hawn, mouthed "bullshit" as opposition MPs insisted the government knew of transfers to torture.

Knowingly transferring a prisoner to torture or abuse is a Geneva-Conventions-grade war crime.

Mr. MacKay has based his denials on information he said was handed to him by the advice of generals and senior officials within the Department of Defence.

Yesterday, General Walter Natynczyk said that he wasn't among the military officers who advised Mr. MacKay there was no evidence of detainee torture.

"I know that I didn't, so you would have to ask the minister's office in terms of who advised him," Canada's chief of defence staff said.

According to one senior military source, Mr. MacKay has never broached the subject with Gen. Natynczyk since he replaced now-retired general Rick Hillier more than a year ago.

As Mr. MacKay's office sought to justify the basis for the minister's long series of denials, spokesman Dan Dugas pointed to public statements by retired generals, including Mr. Hillier, who was chief of defence staff when Mr. MacKay made the first of his sweeping denials in November of 2007.

Although the "credible evidence" phrase with respect to transferred detainees has been used by ministers in the past, it was only to refer to what soldiers and diplomats were reporting from Afghanistan.

Detainee transfers have been halted at least five times since The Globe and Mail first published, in April of 2007, harrowing accounts of post-transfer torture and beatings. Mr. Dugas said yesterday that it would be incorrect to connect all halts of transfers with "credible evidence" of torture. Some might be for other reasons, he said.

However, the Minister's office came closer than ever to admitting that on at least one occasion, the evidence was so compelling that an Afghan prison warden was removed as a direct consequence.

" 'Credible evidence' is where you have an allegation supported by substantive evidence, such as that which was identified in November, 2007," Mr. Dugas said, referring to an instance in which a Canadian-transferred detainee pointed out to Canadian diplomats the electrical cables with which he claimed to have been beaten.

Mr. Dugas said "this evidence would not have been found, and the [prison]warden would not have been removed, if our government had not acted to improve the detainee transfer arrangement."

The shifting positions come two weeks after the long-simmering detainee-abuse issue was reignited by allegations from Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin that likely all prisoners captured by Canada in 2006 and 2007 were tortured after being handed over to the Afghans. But nearly 14 days of questions have produced little in the way of new disclosures on the matter from the Harper government.

Gen. Natynczyk, who appeared yesterday before a defence committee, contradicted the sworn affidavit of another senior Canadian officer who has detailed an instance of a post-transfer beating more than two years ago.

According to a soldier's field notes and the sworn affidavit of Colonel Steve Noonan, Canada's first Kandahar Task Force Commander, a Canadian-captured detainee was beaten by Afghan security forces before Canadian soldiers intervened and rescued him in June of 2006.

Gen. Natynczyk claimed the case wasn't one of a Canadian-transferred detainee being maltreated by Afghans because the man was never officially listed as captured, even though Canadian soldiers stopped, questioned, and photographed him.

Col. Noonan had been selected by the military to provide the sworn affidavit in the government's defence in the case. His affidavit of April, 2007, has never been corrected or withdrawn.

With a report from Jane Taber

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