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Afghan document dump could make detainees a campaign issue

A suspected Taliban prisoner is searched, handcuffed, and processed by Canadian soldiers in northern Kandahar province, Afghanistan, on May 10, 2006.


The first batch of papers related to the handling of Afghan detainees is expected to be released within two weeks - a mid-election document dump that could damage both Liberals and Conservatives, or absolve them of wrongdoing in a matter that once dominated parliamentary debate.

Bloc Québecois Leader Gilles Duceppe insists the documents must be made public by April 15 and says his MPs will withdraw from the closed-door Commons committee that has been vetting them if his demands are not met.

When asked this week if he would expect that release to occur even if it coincided with an election campaign, Mr. Duceppe replied: "Yes, yes, yes."

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Bryon Wilfert, a Liberal MP who sits on the committee, said Thursday he does not know when the release will occur but it will be "soon."

There is "obviously a fervent attempt" to meet Mr. Duceppe's deadline, Mr. Wilfert said. And election, he said, "will not preclude or hamper the release."

The committee is composed of Bloc, Liberal and Conservative members who are vetting the documents after they have been culled by a three-judge panel, which decides what secrets contained in uncensored detainee records can be made public without harming national security.

So far, a total of 18,000 pages of the 40,000 documents have been read by committee members. It could take until a year from July for all of the material to be perused and released.

It's not the first time that Canadians have been told they would get a glimpse of the controversial documents. In December of last year, the committee indicated that a release of the first batch was imminent.

That did not turn out to be the case. But "no one should get the impression that this thing has disappeared. It hasn't disappeared," Mr. Wilfert said.

Federal politicians are not certain, however, of a mechanism that could be used to make the documents public when Parliament is not sitting and all of the parties are engaged in election campaigns. Some have suggested the material would be given to party leaders for release. Others say the panel could make the documents public.

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The three-party committee was struck last May after months of testy debate in the Commons that ended only when the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper was threatened with being declared in contempt of Parliament.

The New Democrats did not agree to take part in the committee which was struck as a compromise last May after Peter Milliken ruled that MPs had an unfettered right to see all government documents, regardless of potential security implications.

In refusing to participate, NDP Leader Jack Layton said the committee was just a "charade" to keep the truth hidden and to prevent a public inquiry.

Jack Harris, the NDP defence critic, said the long delay in releasing the documents "vindicates" his party's position.

"What's going to happen is that the government will have succeeded, along with the co-operation of the Liberals, in maintaining the total cone of silence over these documents," Mr. Harris said.

"We called for a public inquiry because we believed that was the only way that this information would see the light of day and that there would be a proper examination of whether or not Canada complied with it's obligation to prevent torture and to do all things necessary."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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