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Ottawa never 'willfully' handed over detainees, MacKay says

Minister of National Defence Peter MacKay appears before the Special Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan on Parliament Hill.

Adrian Wyld/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Defence Minister Peter MacKay, facing a chorus of calls to resign over his handling of allegations that Canadian-captured prisoners were tortured after transfer to Afghans, testified today that Ottawa has never willfully handed over detainees to abuse.

"No one ever turned a blind eye," he told MPs on a Parliamentary committee responsible for scrutinizing Canada's military deployment in Afghanistan.

"Let me be clear, the government of Canada has never been complicit in torture or any violation of international law by willfully allowing prisoners taken by the Canadian forces to be exposed to abuse."

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It's a shift in emphasis from Mr. MacKay's earlier statements where he made a point of saying that no credible evidence of detainee torture has ever been found.

But Mr. MacKay is on the hot seat today after Canada's top soldier reversed himself on testimony given to another Commons committee this week over Afghan prisoners.

Chief of the Defence Staff Walter Natynczyk admitted this morning that a prisoner severely beaten in 2006 by Afghan interrogators had earlier been taken into custody by Canadian soldiers.

He couldn't say whether the man taken into Canadian custody was also formally processed as a detainee of Canada but said he's ordered a board of inquiry investigation into this.

The question is important because it would contradict Mr. MacKay's repeated insistence that not a single case of torture of Canadian detainees could be proven.

Knowingly transferring a prisoner to torture or abuse is a Geneva Conventions-grade war crime. But in this 2006 case there is no evidence Canadians knew this detainee would be maltreated.

The Harper government has been on the defensive for two weeks since testimony from Richard Colvin, a diplomat at the centre of an unfolding controversy over whether Canada turned a blind eye when handing prisoners to Afghanistan's torture-prone authorities.

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Mr. Colvin's testimony last month alleged that likely all detainees handed over to the Afghans in 2006 and early 2007 were tortured, even though, he said, many were innocent. He told MPs that higher-ups began censoring his reports from Afghanistan in the spring of 2007.

Former defence minister Gordon O'Connor, also before committee today, said he never heard a word about the torture of Canadian prisoners after they were transferred to Afghan authorities during his 18 months on the job.

"I do not recall ever being advised of any abuse or torture of prisoners by Canadian Forces members - or any abuse or torture of detainees that they handed over to the Afghan authorities."

Mr. O'Connor lashed out at opposition parties for their role in the detainee controversy, saying they have gone too far in suggesting there's been a cover up by Canadian Forces soldiers.

"The opposition may not like how we are conducting this war - and that is their right - but to in effect accuse the government and the entire chain of command of the military of a cover up is irresponsible."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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