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A Canadian soldier guards six of ten suspected Taliban prisoners captured in a raid on a compound in northern Kandahar province on May 10, 2006. (JOHN D MCHUGH)
A Canadian soldier guards six of ten suspected Taliban prisoners captured in a raid on a compound in northern Kandahar province on May 10, 2006. (JOHN D MCHUGH)

Analysis

Slow response to abuse warnings not explained Add to ...

After a week of leaked e-mail memos and testimony from diplomats, officials and generals over the treatment of detainees handed over to Afghan jails, one key issue remains unresolved: why the government took so long after the first warnings of prisoner abuse to change the transfer arrangements so that it could monitor them in Afghan jails.

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Several points are essentially uncontested.

Agreed: The government knew that abuses and torture took place in Afghan jails when the Canadian mission in Kandahar began in December of 2005.

While the government denies it had specific evidence that detainees transferred by Canadian soldiers were tortured, Ottawa's former point man on the Afghanistan file, David Mulroney, made clear that the government knew such abuses occurred in Afghan jails generally.

On Friday, Defence Minister Peter MacKay, who was foreign affairs minister at the time, said the government was considering the problems "almost immediately after we took office."

Agreed: It became clear some time in 2006 that detainees being transferred by Canadian soldiers were not being properly tracked and monitored, meaning that Canadian officials could not know if they were being abused or tortured.

Leaked copies of two e-mails from Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin showed that in a May 26 memo, he warned a wide list of officials and Mr. Mackay's office, that the Red Cross was frustrated it was not getting information from Canadian officials that would allow it to locate the detainees. A June 2 e-mail quoted a Red Cross official hinting that "all kinds of things are going on." (The government had signed an agreement in December, 2005, on transferring detainees to Afghans that left monitoring to the Red Cross.)

Former chief of defence staff, retired general Rick Hillier and Mr. Mulroney testified those memos did not warrant immediate changes - but Mr. Mulroney said that Canada had no way to determine if the detainees were tortured. He said the government realized in late 2006 - he did not specify a date - that Canada should follow the example of the Dutch and British, and monitor transferred detainees.

Agreed: Serious allegations of torture began surfacing soon after monitoring began in 2007. The government changed the transfer arrangements in May, 2007, and serious allegations of torture of detainees captured by Canadian soldiers came to light. Mr. Colvin said monitors report that some of the claims, sometimes accompanied by scars, were credible; the generals and Mr. Mulroney said they stopped transfers several times because of serious allegations.

The question: Why did it take so long to change the transfer arrangements?

The government revamped arrangements for transferring detainees in May of 2007 - at least five months after Mr. Mulroney indicated it became clear to government officials that changes were necessary. He indicated that designing a monitoring system and getting police and corrections officials involved was a long process. "Of course, it took a little time," Mr. MacKay said.

But back in February of 2007, then-defence minister Gordon O'Connor said the government was satisfied with the transfer arrangement details. When the issue exploded into controversy - after The Globe and Mail on April 23, 2007, published interviews with detainees who said they had been tortured - the government rebuffed calls for changes. On Friday, Mr. MacKay refused to say when the decision was made to alter the transfer arrangements.

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