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A Canadian soldier guards suspected Taliban prisoners captured in a raid on a compound in northern Kandahar in May, 2006. The suspects were subsequently handed over to the Afghan National Police.

JOHN D MCHUGH/AFP / Getty Images

The opposition parties are moving to assert the supremacy of Parliament in the face of the Harper government's staunch refusal to release all documents related to the Afghan detainee controversy.

Launching two motions in the House of Commons, the opposition is trying to settle the matter through a quick vote that would find government ministers in contempt of the House and force them to bow to MPs' wishes.

"The Prime Minister's refusal to respect the will of Parliament is a serious abuse of power. He is not a king. He answers to the will of Parliament, not the reverse," NDP MP Jack Harris said.

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While the Speaker of the House is studying the issue, however, the government insisted it has every right to hold on to the documents while the former Supreme Court judge Frank Iacobucci reviews them for security concerns.

The next steps in the debate remain unclear, but the Conservatives are suggesting that they are ready to wage a court battle on the matter. Asked whether the government would fight a ruling in favour of the opposition, Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon told CTV News: "Absolutely, we continue to resist."

The three opposition parties made the first move yesterday morning to persuade the Speaker, Peter Milliken, to force the government to comply with the will of the majority of MPs. The opposition is not asking for a full public release of the documents, but rather for the government to let a parliamentary committee study them in private.

In a proposed motion that is backed by the Bloc Québécois, Mr. Harris is arguing that the government should be given 30 days to reverse course.

The Liberals proposed their own motion, but suggested they share the same goal as the two other opposition parties. It is not clear when Mr. Milliken will rule on the opposition requests, but he agreed to hear government ministers before making a decision.

Benoit Pelletier, a constitutional expert at the University of Ottawa, said that at first blush, Parliament's will should win the day. However, he added that the government can argue for close scrutiny of the documents before they are released.

"The Speaker of the House will be sensitive to arguments relating to national security," Mr. Pelletier said.

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That was exactly the strategy Justice Minister Rob Nicholson used during Question Period.

"No one wants to jeopardize public safety or national security and nobody wants any information released that might jeopardize the men and women who are serving us in Afghanistan," he said in answer to a question from Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh.

"So I am calling on the honourable member to put confidence in Mr. Iacobucci. Let him do his job and support the work that he is about to do."

But constitutional expert Errol Mendes said that Parliament must assert its rights against the efforts of the Prime Minister's Office to centralize power in the executive branch.

"It's much bigger than the Afghan detainee issue," he said.

Liberal MP Derek Lee said the government's efforts had to be thwarted.

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"If we do not stand up, those efforts to undermine our Constitution will have succeeded. We cannot let that happen," he said in the House.

The ongoing debate is related to the treatment of detainees by Afghan authorities after their capture by Canadian soldiers.

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