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Inside the national-security wing of the Sarpoza prison, on the west side of Kandahar City. (Graeme Smith/The Globe and Mail)
Inside the national-security wing of the Sarpoza prison, on the west side of Kandahar City. (Graeme Smith/The Globe and Mail)

Shuttering of detainee inquiry appears related to concealing soldiers' identity Add to ...

The federal government is signalling that it wanted the public barred from an inquiry into Afghan detainees this week because it's worried about revealing the faces of two soldiers giving testimony.

Both have served as military police, a job that likely requires them to undertake confidential investigations or undercover operations from time to time.

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The Military Police Complaints Commission and government lawyers refuse to disclose exactly why they collaborated to bar the public from attending the testimony of Sergeant Carol Utton and Captain Marc Bouchard. The Department of Justice has invoked the National Defence Act and said public hearings featuring these soldiers would pose a security threat.

But by erecting a curtain across the entrance to the hearings, while promising to provide unedited transcripts of the testimony, the commission and government have made it clear it's not what Sgt. Utton or Capt. Bouchard say that's of concern.

It's what the two look like.

Transcripts released Wednesday night show that on Tuesday, during Sgt. Utton's testimony, a federal lawyer anxiously requested the commission investigate a TV camera that captured a brief shot of proceedings from outside the room. Her concern was a media camera operator, parked outside the inquiry, had obtained footage of the testimony.

Separately, transcripts from the first day of closed-door hearings show Sgt. Utton talked of rumours that detainees Canada handed over to Afghan police or army units before early 2007 faced the threat of battlefield executions.

She couldn't say why Canada stopped transfers to the Afghan police or army in February, 2007 but said rank and file speculation was because of the risk of battlefield executions. It was a "basic soldier rumour," Sgt. Utton said Tuesday.

In one story, "an interpreter said as soon as the Canadians left [prisoners]would be killed, so the Canadian soldier intervened and took back the detainee," she said. In early 2007, Canada began transferring detainees to Afghanistan's domestic intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security.

Sgt. Utton also talked of how detainees looked forward to being transferred to the National Directorate of Security (NDS) because, she said, they could bribe their way to freedom.

"I believe because they could be bought out of the Afghan jails," she said. "I believe that is a way of life in the Afghan system. It is so corrupt that if you had enough money you could buy people out of jail."

The detainee hearings, which featured testimony from Capt. Bouchard Wednesday , reopen to the public Thursday . They are investigating why Canada continued transferring captives to torture-prone Afghan jails even after Ottawa received multiple complaints of abuse.

Facing a backlash from opposition parties over the closed-door hearings, Glenn Stannard, the head of the complaints commission, Wednesday released a statement to explain himself.

Mr. Stannard, the acting chair, declined to spell out the specific threat from a public viewing of the Utton and Bouchard testimony, but said he was acting in accordance with the National Defence Act. It allows public hearings to be taken private if they might reveal something injurious to security, law enforcement or someone's personal security.

But he did offer some hint of what might be at stake if Sgt. Utton or Capt. Bouchard's face and appearance were captured on film or video.

Mr. Stannard cited a 2007 court decision where a judge decided to take public proceedings private in order to protect the source of information gathered in the course of a police investigation. In that particular decision, the person in need of privacy was a police informant - and the presiding judge said courts must protect "from revelation in public or in court the identity of those who give information to the police in confidence."

With reports from John Ibbitson and Campbell Clark

Follow on Twitter: @stevenchase

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