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Canadian soldiers escort a detainee in Afghanistan. (Les Perreaux/The Globe and Mail)
Canadian soldiers escort a detainee in Afghanistan. (Les Perreaux/The Globe and Mail)

Soldiers raised alarms over poor oversight for Afghan detainees Add to ...

Six months after the Harper government boasted of improved safeguards for detainees, top Canadian soldiers responsible for handing captives to the Afghans complained about being kept in the dark on the health of transferred prisoners.

Colonel Christian Juneau, deputy commander of Joint Task Force Afghanistan, wrote superiors in November of 2007 to protest how little information he was getting from Canadian diplomats assigned to monitor detainees, The Globe and Mail has learned.

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"The frequency of detainee visit reports is of concern to me," wrote the senior officer, who required post-handover inspection updates to ensure he wasn't transferring detainees to a "real risk" of torture.

The letter undermines Ottawa's insistence that as of May, 2007, it had fixed the transfer process to address allegations that detainees handed over to Afghan's notorious intelligence service faced abuse. Detainees have talked of being electrocuted, beaten with cables, hung for days, cut and burned with a lighter.

The debate over Canada's conduct in Afghanistan - and whether it turned a blind eye to torture or knowingly handed over captives to serious maltreatment - has morphed into a pitched political battle between the Harper government and opposition parties. The Tories have refused to offer an uncensored version of events even in the face of threats by rivals to find them in contempt of Parliament.

Documents obtained under access to information law also show Brigadier-General Guy Laroche, commander of Joint Task Force Afghanistan, shared Col. Juneau's worries about the lack of information on detainees. He wrote military brass saying "it is considered essential that we gain better visibility of the situation."

The matter came to a head after Canada discovered on November 5, 2007, that one of the detainees transferred to Afghans had been abused. The captive told of being beaten unconscious and tortured. He showed diplomats fresh welts and then backed up his story by revealing where the electrical cable and the rubber hose used on him were hidden.

Col. Juneau, who halted detainee transfers after this incident, told superiors in the letter that he did so in part because of how little information he'd received in recent months from diplomat inspections of transferred captives. His note was copied to Defence Minister Peter MacKay and then chief of the defence staff Rick Hillier, among others.

"I am forced to conclude that I must cease approving the transfer of further detainees on the basis that the legal test upon which such decisions must be based can not be satisfied at this time, having due regard to all the information and lack of information at my disposal."

In May, 2007, after allegations that prisoners were being abused, Ottawa toughened its detainee transfer agreement to provide for monitoring visits that allowed Canadians to ensure Afghans weren't torturing captives. The federal government has held this up as a "robust monitoring system" that ensured it could quickly react to abuse.

But six months later, the Canadian Forces clearly felt monitoring and reports weren't reaching them.

Brig.-Gen. Laroche in his letter lamented "the fact that meaningful investigation reports into previous abuse allegations have yet to be received." He said this meant there could be a "larger systemic problem" concerning detainees. "This puts this headquarters and indeed the Canadian Forces, in a difficult position."

As commander, he wrote he would not be able to approve any more transfers "on the basis that the legal test upon which such decisions must be based can not be satisfied."

The general told his Ottawa masters that it was "essential that an effective, robust and timely mechanism be put in place to deal with new allegations" and explained he was not only halting handovers but putting a moratorium on further transfers until a better reporting system was put into place.

"This can only be accomplished through a meaningful detention facility presence and pro-active … reporting that includes concrete recommendations."

Canada didn't resume transfers until February, 2008.

Asked for comment on the commanders' complaints, the federal government defended its actions by noting transfers were suspended until an investigation was complete and "appropriate monitoring mechanisms were in place to allow for the transfers to resume."

"Canada's processes for the transfer of detainees to the Afghan authorities have evolved and improved over a number of years," a Defence Department spokeswoman said in an e-mailed statement.

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