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Defence Minister Peter MacKay walks past a Canadian soldier during a ceremony marking the 69th anniversary of the Battle of Britain at the Aviation Museum in Ottawa on Sept. 20, 2009.

Pawel Dwulit

Defence Minister Peter MacKay says he never saw a Canadian diplomat's warning about possible torture in Afghan prisons.

It was revealed this week that two reports in early 2006 warned the federal government that prisoners turned over by Canadian troops were likely being tortured.

The documents were circulated widely throughout the Foreign Affairs and Defence departments and were shared with senior military commanders in Ottawa and Afghanistan, an affidavit filed with a military watchdog agency said.

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Yet when allegations of abuse surfaced in the spring of 2007, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and several cabinet ministers insisted they had received no credible reports from Canadian officials about possible torture.

Mr. MacKay, who was foreign minister at the time, insisted Thursday that he knew nothing of the documents.

"I have not seen those reports in either my capacity as Minister of National Defence or previously as Minister of Foreign Affairs," he said in a telephone interview from Halifax.

"I can't speak for other ministers."

Richard Colvin, who is now an intelligence officer at the Canadian embassy in Washington, wrote in May, 2006, that the allegations of torture regarding Afghan prisoners were "serious, imminent and alarming."

He followed it up with another warning in early June, 2006, almost a full year before the federal government acknowledged the problem.

Mr. Colvin said he spoke with prisoners who claimed to have been tortured by their jailers and that inmates showed physical signs of abuse.

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In his written statement to the Military Police Complaints Commission, he said he received a reply to his first warning and therefore knew that senior government officials were aware of his concerns.

However, Mr. Harper and senior cabinet ministers insisted for over a year that they had no credible reports of abuse.

The Conservative government also steadfastly refused until the spring of 2007 to revise a prisoner-transfer agreement to give Canada the right to monitor the treatment of prisoners given into Afghan custody.

NDP defence critic Jack Harris said he has a hard time believing bureaucrats didn't pass along the warning and wonders if the Conservatives were trying to mislead Canadians.

"I can't conceive that they didn't know, [but]I'm not ready to make the accusation," he said.

"You would think it was the duty of any public servants to make sure the minister is aware of this type of memo and he would have to be briefed on it."

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The Foreign Affairs Department produces annual reports on human rights in individual developing countries, and the 2006 review on Afghanistan flagged that country's prison system as rife with torture.

The next year, as Mr. MacKay was questioned about it in the House of Commons, he denied having read that document as well, even though it was widely circulated in his own department.

A public hearing by the Military Police Complaints Commission into the torture allegations was shut down Wednesday for at least six months to let lawyers argue appeals over the scope of the agency's power and what it can investigate.

The commissioner, Peter Tinsley, said the federal government is stonewalling.

He said the slow pace of releasing heavily censored documents under national security was impeding military police officers' attempts to defend themselves on allegations they turned a blind eye to warnings of torture.

The NDP says there should be a public inquiry into Canada's policy of handing over prisoners to Afghan jails if the Conservative government continues to delay the commission.

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Mr. MacKay has repeatedly denied the Conservatives are trying to stymie the investigation. He says the commission has a mandate limited to what military police knew - or should have known - about the possible torture of Taliban prisoners.

A spokesman for Mr. MacKay said that position is backed by a recent Federal Court ruling that clearly lays out what the commission can and cannot pursue.

"The commission is limited to considering the conduct of members of the military police in the performance of their policing duties or functions," said Dan Dugas, who quoted from the ruling.

"It has no jurisdiction to inquire into the conduct of the military at large, much less the conduct of persons who are not members of the military."

But Mr. Harris says a formal inquiry may be the only way to go to get the truth.

At least two Commons committees are poised to begin their own investigations of how Canada has handled Afghan prisoners and whether they were knowingly handed over to torture, in apparent violation of international law.

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Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae said those investigations are even more important now than when they were proposed a week ago.

"If the government won't come clean before the [police commission]then it's up to Parliamentarians to investigate and hold them to account," he said Thursday in Toronto.

The special committee on Afghanistan is being asked to call Mr. Colvin, retired naval captain Steve Moore, the former military provost marshal, and Mr. Tinsley to testify.

And the Commons defence committee will consider opening its own inquiry.

Mr. Harris said both Mr. Harper and Mr. MacKay should be called as witnesses.

Decisions are expected when both committees meet Tuesday.

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