An Afghan-Canadian who served as an interpreter for Canada's military has breathed new life into the detainee controversy with troubling allegations that this country's soldiers deliberately transferred prisoners to torture.
Ahmadshah Malgarai also told a Commons committee yesterday that he came across evidence troops killed an innocent Afghan teen in 2007 and then tried to cover it up.
A few hours later, the country's top soldier issued a statement saying the Canadian military will probe these "grave accusations." It was a remarkably different tone from last fall, when the Harper government and the military dismissed other allegations, calling them as groundless.
Mr. Malgarai, whose Canadian Forces' codename was "Pasha," was an interpreter for the military in Afghanistan for one year ending in June, 2008. He distributed copies of letters of commendation he received from the military and Afghan government.
Yesterday, he told MPs disturbing stories about Canada's practice of handing over detainees to Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security (NDS), which frequently tortured prisoners.
"I saw Canadian military intelligence sending detainees to the NDS when the detainees did not tell them what they expected to hear," Mr. Malgarai told the special Commons committee on Afghanistan.
"If the [Canadian]interrogator thought a detainee was lying, the military sent him to NDS for more questions, Afghan style. Translation: abuse and torture."
Effectively, he said, "the military used the NDS as subcontractors for abuse and torture."
Mr. Malgarai's testimony is the most explosive to enter the long-running and divisive political debate about Canada's conduct in Afghanistan since last November. That's when diplomat Richard Colvin told MPs nearly all detainees handed over were tortured and that Ottawa turned a deaf ear to his warnings that prisoners were destined for abuse.
None of the ex-interpreter's allegations have been proven, and the Harper government and the military have repeatedly pledged that they never knowingly handed over detainees to abuse - an offence considered a war crime under the Geneva Conventions.
Last night, Chief of the Defence Staff General Walt Natynczyk defended the reputation of his soldiers in a widely circulated press release, saying they have "conducted themselves with bravery and compassion" in Afghanistan.
"I can assure all Canadians that we take all allegations seriously and will investigate new allegations appropriately," Gen. Natynczyk said.
There is friction between Mr. Malgarai and the Canadian government. He alleges that someone in the Canadian Forces leaked his real name and identity to the Taliban, calling it punishment for complaining to them about detainee transfers. The ex-interpreter says this led to death threats from the Taliban and forced his family to flee Afghanistan as refugees.
Mr. Malgarai, who now lives in Ottawa, said Defence Minister Peter MacKay and former chief of the defence staff Rick Hillier refused his requests for help in relocating his family.
The Tories immediately challenged the ex-translator's assertions.
"So you are calling all of the generals who testified before this committee liars," asked Conservative MP Laurie Hawn, parliamentary secretary to the Defence Minister.
Mr. Malgarai was reluctant to go into detail about his allegations outside the Commons committee, where he is protected by parliamentary immunity, so as to not breach secrecy agreements.
But he recounted several stories before MPs that he said illustrated how the Canadian government turned a blind eye to torture at the NDS.
In one July, 2007, example, he said the NDS refused to take a detainee suffering battlefield injuries. The NDS colonel, in front of two Foreign Affairs advisers, placed his pistol on the table and said, "Here is my gun. Go shoot him. Give me the body and I will justify it for you."
Mr. Malgarai said one Foreign Affairs official, Ed Jager, immediately told the colonel: "I will pretend you did not say [that]and I did not hear it."
The detainee was ultimately handed over. "Canada's government says detainees are never transferred to NDS if there is a risk of abuse. But this is a lie," the ex-interpreter said.
In the fall of 2007, the NDS refused to take an ill detainee. The man was saying he'd rather be killed on the spot than end up with the NDS, Mr. Malgarai said. "Please put one bullet in my head. Do that instead of transferring me," the man pleaded as he lowered his head to the ground.
The same NDS colonel, whom he identified only as Yassin, spoke up, saying, "When [the detainee]gets to my room, he will speak."
This, Mr. Malgarai said, "was a clear threat to abuse this ... detainee."
The ex-interpreter alleged during his opening statement that Canadian soldiers shot an unarmed teen in the back of the head in June or July of 2007. He later acknowledged under questioning that his knowledge was second-hand.
Mr. Malgarai said he translated the interrogation of detainees captured in connection with the death and also read an intelligence report on the matter.
He said he interviewed the detainees and determined none were Taliban. However, all were handed over to the NDS.
"None did anything wrong except to be at home when the Canadian Forces murdered their neighbour," Mr. Malgarai recounted. "Yet Canada transferred all these innocent men to the NDS."
Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae said the testimony underlines the need for a full public inquiry with powers to peruse all government records. The Harper government is currently censoring many in the name of national security.
"There are series of stories here that just won't go away," Mr. Rae said.
"You can't simply repeat by rote allegations that people make, but you can't ignore them either."
Excerpts from Ahmadshah Malgarai's testimony to a House of Commons committee Wednesday:
"I saw Canada's military intelligence sending detainees to NDS, when the detainees did not tell them what they expect to hear. If the interrogators thought a detainee was lying, the military sent him to NDS for more questions, Afghan style. Translation: abuse and torture .... the military used the NDS as subcontractors for abuse and torture. "
"During the meeting, disagreement broke out. Colonel Yassin said that NDS would not accept a sick detainee. When the Canadians insisted, Colonel Yassin removed his pistol, put it on the table, and said: 'Here is my gun. Go shoot him. Give me the body and I will justify it for you.'
I translated the NDS colonel's proposal to murder the detainee.
Canada's government says detainees are never transferred to NDS if there is a risk of abuse. But this is a lie. This detainee was transferred to an NDS colonel who proposed murdering him, while military police and DFAIT people watched. When Colonel Yassin made the death threat, Ed Jager immediately said 'I will pretend you did not say [that] and I did not hear it'.
Of course, pretending did not protect the man, but it is what DFAIT and the military police did. I never found out what NDS did to that man."
"When [the detainee]understood that he was being transferred to the NDS, Mr. Azckzai became angry. He asked why he was being transferred. Mr. Jager did not answer. However, Colonel Yassin objected [that]Mr. Jager was telling the detainee his rights.
Mr. Azckai protested that he had children, and no money to bribe his way out of prison. Finally, he put his head on the ground and said, 'Please put one bullet in my head. Do that instead of transferring me to the NDS.' He was that scared of NDS.
Colonel Yassin answered. He told all of us, `When Azckzai gets to my room, he will speak.' It was a clear threat to abuse this embarrassing detainee."