Allegations of detainee torture are about a problem in Afghanistan that is beyond Ottawa's control, Prime Minister Stephen Harper says.
Mr. Harper and his cabinet have been taking a beating since a diplomat told a Parliamentary committee that the government ignored warnings that detainees captured by Canadian soldiers were likely tortured after they were handed over to local forces, but Mr. Harper insisted it's an issue for the Afghans to settle.
"The allegations are not being made - I hope - against Canadian soldiers," Mr. Harper said in a year-end interview with the French-language television network TVA. "… Our diplomats reformed the transfer system. We are speaking here of a problem among Afghans. It's not a problem between Canadians and Afghans. We're speaking of problems between the government of Afghanistan and the situation in Afghanistan. We are trying to do what's possible to improve that situation, but it's not in our control."
Richard Colvin told the Special Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan last month that the government ignored his repeated warnings in 2006 and 2007.
Since then, the government has insisted there was no proof of torture, and moved in May, 2007, to ensure that Canadian officials could monitor detainees in Afghan jails.
But opposition politicians have called for a public inquiry into whether the government turned a blind eye to potential torture, insisting that under international law, Canada cannot transfer prisoners who might be tortured.
"Mr. Harper is flat wrong," Liberal MP Bob Rae said, adding that the Geneva Conventions set out a greater legal responsibility for forces handing over detainees. "Canada cannot transfer prisoners if we think there's a prospect of their being tortured. Period."
Canada moved troops into the Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan in late 2005, and the government has taken the position that Taliban insurgents don't technically qualify for the protections of the Geneva Conventions, but Canadian soldiers and officials will treat them as though they did.
In the TVA interview, taped on Monday and released yesterday, Mr. Harper called changes in an agreement with Afghanistan's government in 2007 to allow monitoring of detainees a great success.
"The system works very well," he said. "It's not perfect. There are problems from time to time."
On Tuesday, opposition politicians continued to press the issue, holding informal hearings of the committee because a Tory boycott meant an official meeting could not be held.
But it appears the Conservatives sent a young staffer to record the proceedings, one who left hurriedly after stand-in Liberal chair Bryon Wilfert commented on the "long arm of the PMO."
One informal witness, Amnesty International lawyer Paul Champ, insisted that the revamped 2007 agreement on transferring detainees has not worked. "We do not believe the problem was fixed," he said. "The risk of torture remains."
The Canadian Forces have stopped transfers three times this year because of concerns about torture allegations, and Canadian officials have heard graphic accounts of torture, accompanied by corroborating physical marks, since they began monitoring detainees in 2007, he noted.