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Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin arrives to testify at the Commons special committee on Afghanistan in Ottawa on Wednesday, November 18, 2009.
Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin arrives to testify at the Commons special committee on Afghanistan in Ottawa on Wednesday, November 18, 2009.

Detainee whistleblower blasts back at Tories on torture Add to ...

Diplomat Richard Colvin has broken weeks of silence to respond to government attacks on his allegations that Canada turned a blind eye to the torture of Afghan detainees, providing a point-by-point rebuttal that suggests Ottawa had ample warnings in 2006.

The Canadian government was warned repeatedly - in six separate reports - of problems with the handling of Afghan prisoners, including the fact that "torture" is rife in Afghanistan jails, he writes in a 16-page letter sent to a parliamentary committee probing the matter.

Mr. Colvin said Ottawa had no interest in what he had to say, recounting how the military even stopped recording his warnings about Afghanistan's notorious National Directorate of Security (NDS) in a March 2007 meeting. He said he urged them to stop transfers.

"I informed an interagency meeting ... that 'The NDS tortures people, that's what they do, and if we don't want our detainees tortured, we shouldn't give them to the NDS,'" the letter says.

The response, Mr. Colvin writes, was that the military note-taker proceeded to "stop writing and put down her pen."

Mr. Colvin is the foreign-service officer who in mid-November re-ignited the long-simmering controversy about whether Canada transferred suspects rounded up in Afghanistan to abuse at the hands of that intelligence service.

His letter is a broadside directed at those in the public service, the military and the Harper government who publicly rejected his November testimony.

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Last month, Mr. Colvin, who spent 17 months on a Canadian diplomatic posting in Afghanistan, told MPs that likely all of the detainees handed over to Afghans in 2006 and part of 2007 were tortured. He also alleged that Ottawa ignored and then later tried to suppress his early warnings.

Adequate warnings

Mr. Colvin said it's not true as the military and government have claimed that "nobody told us" about these concerns.

In his letter, he listed six reports from May through December, 2006, that red flagged concerns about detainees, some of which have already been reported on in the Canadian news media. But others include a Dec. 4, 2006 embassy report that noted allies' concern that detainees may "vanish from sight" after transfer to Afghan hands as well as the risk they are "tortured." Another December report on human rights in Afghanistan said torture is widespread in Afghan prisons, as are "extrajudicial executions and disappearances."

'Outside the wire' more than 500 times

The diplomat tries to beat back allegations that his information is not credible because he was cloistered in government compounds rather than going "outside the wire" to assess the situation and meet contacts.

"For the record, I went 'outside the wire' in Kandahar at least eleven times, including attending a shura of 300 elders in northern Kandahar ... visiting villages in Arghandab, and spending the night at a forward operating base in Panjwayi," he writes.

"In Kabul, I left the protected embassy zone (presumably 'the wire') an average of twice a day - probably 500 times in total. I also travelled to other provinces."

Early evidence of torture

The diplomat also took aim at government assertions that there were no credible evidence of torture of Canadian-transferred detainees until November 2007. Mr. Colvin said the Kabul embassy began finding them in June 2007, shortly after Canada began checking up on prisoners after transfer.

"As soon as we began monitoring, we found detainees in both Kandahar and Kabul with credible accounts of torture," he writes.

He also pointed out that in June, 2007, a Canadian provincial reconstruction team unit interviewed a Canadian-transferred detainee in Afghanistan's Sarpoza prison "who reported that he had been 'beaten with electrical cables while blindfolded' while in NDS custody."

Detainees are 'local yokels' not terrorists

Military veterans have suggested Mr. Colvin was duped by detainees who allege they're tortured because they're following an insurgent playbook on how to hurt the allies. But the diplomat noted in his letter that a senior military official, Lieutenant-Colonel Tom Putt told another detainee inquiry that most of them were merely "local yokels" not crafty terrorists.

"Witnesses who testified that 'the Taliban are trained to claim torture' seem to be confusing Taliban insurgents (poorly educated Pashtuns, usually illiterate, with a parochial, Afghanistan-centered agenda) with al-Qaeda terrorists (international jihadis, often highly educated)," Mr. Colvin writes.

He said contrary to what Tory MPs have argued, the detainees were reluctant to discuss their abuse for fear of reprisals from their jailers.

"There are strong disincentives for a detainee to claim he was tortured. Anyone still in custody could be punished for speaking out, including through more torture," Mr. Colvin writes.

The diplomat said the embassy's questioning of one Canadian-transferred detainee found the man unwilling to talk. He "became quiet" according to the report we sent to Ottawa. "He said that in Kandahar he had been 'hurt' and 'had problems' [but]... said he is 'happy now'," Mr. Colvin writes. He said a consular officer noticed new growth on two of his toenails that "were consistent with somebody having their toenails pulled out."

Widespread detainee torture is not speculation

Retired general Rick Hillier has dismissed Mr. Colvin's allegation of widespread torture of detainees as "ludicrous."

The diplomat however said his sources on this are "highly credible" and these were relayed to Ottawa in a report around May or June, 2007.

"It was generally known that prisoners in Afghanistan are routinely tortured or abused," he writes in his letter.

The province where Canada operates, Kandahar, saw even broader torture.

"In Kandahar, the risk is even higher than in the average province. Kandahar is on the front lines of the insurgency. Each side treats the other with brutality."

He said it's "implausible" that Mr. Hillier or retired Lieutenant-General Michael Gauthier, another former top solider, would have been ignorant of how Afghans treat prisoners.

Inadequate investigations

Mr. Colvin said the follow-ups on allegations of torture received by Canada in mid-2007 were sub-standard. He recounted how former ambassador to Afghanistan Arif Lalani rejected the investigations carried out by the very Afghan institution - the NDS - accused of torture.

"The NDS sent ambassador Lalani the result of their investigation -- a one page sheet, with two paragraphs of test, saying that NDS had looked into the three cases and found they had no basis," he recounted.

"The 'investigation' was so weak that ambassador Lalani refused to even accept the report."

Most detainees were unconnected to the insurgency

The Tories and the military have repeatedly argued all prisoner captured by Canada have good reason to be detained, such as, for example, having been found with gunshot residue or bomb residue on their hands.

Mr. Colvin, however, said the NDS itself told Canada that "many or most of our detainees were unconnected to the insurgency." He said Ottawa has been informed of this.

"The NDS also told us that because the intelligence value of Canadian-transferred detainees was so low, it did not want them."

Ottawa censored Colvin

The diplomat disputed denials by David Mulroney, the former senior civil servant in charge of Afghanistan, that reports from Kabul were censored. Mr. Mulroney has said the only information edited out of these was "opinion."

Mr. Colvin recounted how then-ambassador Lalani warned him off reporting on the eroding security situation in 2007.

"This followed an embassy report to Ottawa in which we noted that the Afghan Minister of Defence judged security to be getting worse - a view shared by our allies, and corroborated by violence trends and other metrics," he writes.

"Nevertheless, Mr. Mulroney sent instructions via Ambassador Lalani that we should either not mention the security situation at all, or to assert that it was getting better. The ambassador accordingly sent a report in which he said security was improving."

Mr. Mulroney even castigated foreign service officers who disobeyed this directive, he said.

"In September 2007, an embassy staffer, in response to a written request from DFAIT's Afghanistan Taskforce to contribute to a security assessment by one of our NATO allies, sent a report that security in Kandahar had got worse and was likely to further deteriorate. Mr. Mulroney severely rebuked the officer in writing."

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