The military watchdog probing Canada's record on Afghan detainees says Ottawa has been withholding documents that go to the heart of its inquiry.
The Military Police Complaints Commission says the federal government's refusal to release key letters written by Canadian Forces commanders raises troubling concerns about Ottawa's approach to divulging information in this matter.
At issue are two missives from Canadian commanders complaining about how the Department of Foreign Affairs was keeping them in the dark on the well-being of detainees handed over to Afghan jailers. Both Colonel Christian Juneau and Brigadier-General Guy Laroche wrote that this dearth of information contributed to a lengthy halt in detainee transfers in November, 2007.
It's the latest roadblock for the commission, which has been repeatedly stymied by federal government lawyers during the course of its investigation.
The Globe and Mail obtained censored copies of these letters under access to information law and wrote about them on March 31. Although significant portions are blacked out, they undermine the Harper government's insistence that it had immediately fixed the transfer process to address allegations of abuse against detainees handed over to Afghan's notorious intelligence service.
The Military Police Complaints Commission says it had not seen these letters before and has written the federal government demanding uncensored copies. The commissioner's lead lawyer says Ottawa should already have provided them.
"It is inconceivable that the documents … could have been considered irrelevant to the matters under inquiry," lead commission lawyer Ron Lunau wrote on April 8.
He said it's "a very significant concern" that the Department of National Defence didn't see fit to furnish investigators with the letters.
Mr. Lunau said Ottawa must explain itself. "We would appreciate clarification of the test by which it is being determined by the government whether materials should be provided to the commission."
The commission is probing allegations raised in a complaint by Amnesty International and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association that military police "aided and abetted the torture of detainees" by handing over prisoners to Afghan jailers despite reports of maltreatment.
Canada is bound by international conventions that make it a war crime to hand over prisoners to torture and oblige countries to take back captives being abused.
Department of Justice lawyer Alain Préfontaine said Ottawa didn't provide the letters because it didn't believe the wording of the commission's request for documents covered them.
Mr. Préfontaine didn't commit to releasing the letters to the commission but said it "can certainly ask" for them.
Paul Champ, the lawyer for Amnesty International and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said Ottawa is deliberately restricting records by narrowly interpreting requests for information. "I don't think it demonstrates the sort of forthrightness and transparency that we would expect from the government of Canada in this proceeding."
The letters show that six months after the Harper government boasted of improved safeguards for detainees, top Canadian soldiers responsible for handing captives to the Afghans were distressed at the lack of monitoring reports on transferred captives.
The matter came to a head after Canada discovered on Nov. 5, 2007, that a detainee transferred to Afghans had been abused."I am forced to conclude that I must cease approving the transfer of further detainees on the basis that the legal test upon which such decisions must be based can not be satisfied at this time, having due regard to all the information and lack of information at my disposal," Col. Juneau wrote.