Skip to main content

Former diplomat Richard Colvin testifies at the Military Police Complaints Commission on Tuesday April 13, 2010. Colvin says Afghan war prisoners were at 'high risk' of abuse and torture.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

When diplomat Richard Colvin warned a March, 2007, gathering of Canadian officials to stop handing prisoners to Afghanistan's notorious intelligence service, a government note-taker laid down her pen and stopped recording the meeting, the foreign service officer says.

Mr. Colvin, who reignited the long-simmering controversy over Canada's handling of Afghan prisoners last fall, told a detainee inquiry Tuesday this reaction demonstrated the willful blindness he was "up against" when raising alarm.

"You know the NDS tortures people. That's what they do," the diplomat said, recounting for the Military Police Complaints Commission what he said in March of 2007 about Afghanistan's much-maligned National Directorate of Security.

"And if we don't want our detainees tortured, we shouldn't give them to the NDS."

Mr. Colvin, who has said nearly all detainees handed to the Afghans faced torture in the early days of Canada's Kandahar mission, testified that Ottawa back then stymied efforts by human-rights groups to monitor what happened to them.

He said the Canadians turned a deaf ear to concerns and worked to restrict information about detainees, even to allies. Mr. Colvin said one foreign ally complained that "getting information from the Canadians is like getting blood from a stone."

The diplomat, who served in Afghanistan for 17 months, told the commission that in 2006, Ottawa obstructed follow-up monitoring of detainees by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) by failing to alert the organization of handovers for weeks or even months. Torture by the NDS is believed to take place within the first 48 hours after transfer.

"In practice, we were blocking them from doing this," Mr. Colvin said. "[The ICRC]were losing many, if not most, or possibly all, of our detainees."

Mr. Colvin said he had obtained credible information about abuse only one month after arriving in Kandahar.

"It wasn't that [a detainee]has been mistreated," he said. "It was that a group of detainees transferred by Canada were vulnerable [to]mistreatment or being mistreated."

A major obstacle for Mr. Colvin and the commission is that significant portions of the diplomat's reports to Ottawa in 2006 and 2007 have been blacked out by Canadian government censors in the name of national security.

The diplomat was challenged by Department of Justice lawyer Alain Préfontaine, who argued that what Mr. Colvin characterized as warnings to Ottawa were not in fact that urgent or sharply worded.

In his reports, Mr. Colvin was relaying reporting from the ICRC, which often phrases its warnings in gentler terms - a kind of code - to avoid angering host countries that allow it to visit their jails.

In a prickly exchange with Mr. Préfontaine, Mr. Colvin said the heart of his reporting to Ottawa is unavailable for the public, or even the commission, to judge.

"Your redactions … have made my content somewhat incoherent because big chunks of it have been sliced out," Mr. Colvin told the Justice lawyer.

"Obviously critical information has been removed by the censor. And I'm not allowed to speak to what's behind the blacked-out portions," Mr. Colvin said. "I am not sure what good it is to simply read the little bits which the censor decided is available to the Canadian public."

But Mr. Préfontaine said the commission will have to rely on the blacked-out version to render its judgment on the detainee file.