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Canada turns over twice as many detainees as allies in Afghanistan

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.


Canada outstripped its NATO allies almost two-to-one in the number of prisoners it turned over to Afghan authorities in the first nine months of last year, figures prepared for the Afghan government show.

The statistics were compiled by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and made available to The Canadian Press. Ottawa does not release them.

More ominously, the commission complained in its latest annual report that it is still frustrated in attempts to check on prisoners handed over to the country's notorious intelligence service - the National Directorate of Security.

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The commission, which relies heavily on Canadian government funding and mentorship, says between January and the end of September, 2009, it was notified that 267 suspected insurgents were transferred by Canada, Britain, the Netherlands and Denmark. The United States has its own separate system for dealing with captured Taliban.

Among North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies, the Canadian army was way out in front with 163 prisoners. Britain followed with 93 confirmed transfers; the Netherlands 10 and Denmark 1.

Unlike those countries, who make these numbers publicly available, Ottawa refuses to release its figures, citing operational security and the safety of troops as the reason. Before the U.S. surge, the explanation was that giving away the number of captured with so small a Canadian force on the ground would help the Taliban track where their people might be.

The Canadian numbers, however, are available for the asking in this country.

Before it was pushed into monitoring prisoners itself, Ottawa turned to the Afghan human rights commission, but quickly found that the country's intelligence service wouldn't allow the agency in. Three years later, the situation remains the same.

"We continue to face that problem with the NDS," agency commissioner Nader Nadery said in an interview. "They say it's security, but we don't buy that. We are a national institution, as they are and we have a right to examine their facilities."

There will be a face-to-face meeting between intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh and commissioners in the near future in another attempt to resolve the impasse, Mr. Nadery added.

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The International Committee of the Red Cross also monitors prisoners, but declined comment last week. The humanitarian organization doesn't discuss findings of prison inspections, except with the nation involved.

Canada's ambassador in Kabul, William Crosbie, seemed surprised by the dispute and downplayed it, saying whenever there are problems getting into prisons, it's usually with individual wardens and not systemic obstruction.

Regardless, he said he's satisfied that prisoners are being monitored carefully.

"We have a very rigorous process to identify whether any Canadian transferred prisoners are at risk," Mr. Crosbie said in an interview with The Canadian Press over the weekend.

Both Foreign Affairs and Corrections Canada staff do follow-up visits.

The Afghan human rights commission noted that torture was still present in the country's justice system, but the situation was improving.

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"There was a decrease of 34 per cent in the rate of torture and ill-treatment perpetrated in prisons and detention centres," said the 2009 annual report, which also noted general prison conditions were getting better.

Mr. Nadery credits the public attention on detainees and the removal of some known abusers for the decline.

The Conservative government often portrays the ongoing detainee issue as old news and as a matter that is not top of mind for Canadians. And it hasn't answered some questions related to it, principal among them being why Canadian troops capture so many more prisoners than other countries

Diplomat Richard Colvin told the special House of Commons committee on Afghanistan last November that the army cast too wide a dragnet and that the arbitrary arrests have made locals fear the Canadians.

"Many were just local people: farmers; truck drivers; tailors, peasants - random human beings in the wrong place at the wrong time," Mr. Colvin testified on Nov. 18, 2009. "They were picked up ... during routine military operations, and on the basis typically not of intelligence (reports) but suspicion or unproven denunciation."

Last September, the NDS halted transfers and complained that Canadians did not provide enough evidence for them to prosecute suspected insurgents.

Cases of Taliban fighters being captured red-handed are never in dispute, it is the instances where soldiers find someone following them and talking on a cellphone - or staking out their location. The troops call them "dickers."

It's these kinds of grey situations that have led to a "you can't second-guess guys in the field" mentality, according to soldiers who spoke privately.

Once a prisoner is taken, the time of capture is written down, sometimes on a piece of torn ration box cardboard, to ensure accuracy. Soldiers will ask questions in the field before the suspected insurgent is transferred to Kandahar Airfield.

And thus begins a highly legalized process that is a departure from the early days of handovers and has been constantly evolving.

Military intelligence officers must now ask permission in writing each time before interrogating suspects, who are processed with biometric scans, medical exams and given fresh clothes.

They are housed in clean canvas tents, in a secure facility at the airfield, apparently with lots of ambient lighting. The prisoners have access to concrete bunkers and flak vests in case of a rocket attack.

Their facility is under the watchful eye of military police 24 hours a day, but soldiers who've been in the heavily fortified centre say the lights are not on all the time and insisted no abusive behaviour is tolerated.

There's "no waterboarding or anything like that" during interrogation, a soldier quipped. Canadian Security Intelligence officers did take part in the questioning early in the mission, but officials say that no longer happens.

The military does not allow journalists into the detention facility, so the inside account given to The Canadian Press was compiled through well-placed sources.

A team of six people, including the task force lawyer and policy advisor, must decide whether the prisoner is to be set free - or handed over to Afghan authorities. Once a consensus is reached, the final decision rests with the task force commander.

"It's all a very regimented process," a source said.

If the suspect is set free, he is given taxi money and sent on his way. If the decision is to hand over, then a package of evidence is prepared for the NDS and prosecutors with the Afghan attorney general's office.

NATO guidelines say prisoners must be transferred within 96 hours, but a source said the Canada's process is so involved and so rigorous that the deadline is often missed. The British also regularly miss the deadline for much the same reason.

Ahmadshah Malgarai, a former Canadian Forces translator, testified last week before Parliament and accused military intelligence of outsourcing torture to the NDS.

"I saw Canadian military intelligence sending detainees to the NDS when the detainees did not tell them what they expected to hear," he said. "If the interrogator thought a detainee was lying, the military sent him to the NDS for more questions, Afghan-style - translation, abuse and torture."

General Walter Natynczyk, the Chief of Defence Staff, hotly denied the allegation in a response letter to the Commons Afghanistan committee, which was leaked over the weekend.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay said the general's letter showed that the detainee issue was not being taken lightly.

"We take these issues very seriously. What Gen. Natynczyk has put forward casts the allegations that we heard last week a very different light than the way in which they were presented," Mr. MacKay said from Edmonton.

"All I can tell you is that, having spent some time in a courtroom, having worked as both a prosecutor and a defence lawyer, there are usually two if not eight different sides to a story and the more information the better."

The military in Kandahar insists it has an evidence-based system, which has evolved to meet each obstacle.

Since the complaint about evidence, the army now has a lawyer working full-time to prepare cases with the NDS.

Often times, because Afghan intelligence says it doesn't have enough proof, the suspect is released and occasionally seen on the battlefield again.

"Think of how frustrated we are with that," said one source.

The Afghan human rights commission conducted 1,160 prison visits last year in 34 provinces and managed to secure the release of 138 illegally arrested people, including seven women and 124 illegally detained individuals.

The agency took credit for prison improvements in Kandahar and three other provinces. Many of those upgrades were paid for by the Canadian government.

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