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The Globe and Mail

Lacrosse trumps torture for Stephen Harper

Prime Minister Stephen Harper accepts an official 2010 Team Canada lacrosse jersey from players Brodie Merrill and Geoff Snider at his Langevin Block office on Monday, November 23, 2009.

All available opposition guns were brought to bear against the government on the question of Afghan detainees during Question Period. But Prime Minister Stephen Harper wasn't in the House to return fire. His more pressing engagement was a photo opportunity with the national men's lacrosse team.

So Mr. Harper didn't get to hear the Liberals join the NDP in calling for a public inquiry into whether and why Canadian forces transferred Afghans in their custody to local officials, who proceeded to torture them, according to testimony last week by Richard Colvin, a Foreign Affairs official who was in Afghanistan during the years of alleged abuse in 2006-2007. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff opened the questioning, asking why the government stopped transferring prisoners on several occasions, unless it was suspicious of exactly that abuse?

"Can't the government tell us the truth on this issue?" he asked.

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We stopped the transfers when the Afghans refused us access to their prisons, Defence Minister Peter MacKay, who was on his feet during much of Question Period, replied.

Then the Liberals unleashed the hounds. "This government is engaged in a massive obstruction of justice," Liberal defence critic Ujjal Dosanjh stormed, repeating the demand for a public inquiry.

The Bloc Quebecois wanted to know why the government is trying to impeach the testimony of Mr. Colvin. "Why not investigate the allegations, rather than attack the messenger?" asked Bloc MP Claude Bachand.

To which Mr. MacKay repeatedly replied that "there has not been a single, solitary proven allegation of a prisoner being abused who was transferred" by Canadian authorities to Afghan authorities.

As for Mr. Colvin, "the testimony that was heard last week is not credible," he maintained.

Many have stated such torture was routine, but the Conservatives have imposed a high burden of proof in this instance.

Such accusations, the minister suggested, impugns the integrity of the Forces. "The last thing they want to do is be smeared by the opposition,"

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NDP Leader Jack Layton mischievously took a swipe at Mr. Ignatieff's who controversially (though with many, many qualifications) supported the use of torture in extreme circumstances, after the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.

"Unlike other party leaders … we are not going to write books justifying torture in any way shape or form." Mr. Layton reported to the House.

Mr. MacKay also counterattacked, claiming it was the Liberal government of Paul Martin that put the initial "inadequate transfer arrangement" in place. Mr. MacKay seemed prepared to comply with an opposition request to release all related ministerial and prime-ministerial briefing documents, broadly hinting that it was the Liberals would be embarrassed by what they read.

Then after almost half an hour, it was on to desultory questions on other topics, the only one of real interest being questions of Environment Minister Jim Prentice about what, if anything, Canada would be bringing to the climate change summit. Describing the negotiations as "among the most difficult our country has ever been involved in," Mr. Prentice insisted any agreement Canada signed on to would need the signatures of the United States, China, India, Brazil and other major emitters.

(Photo: The Prime Minister accepts an official 2010 Team Canada lacrosse jersey from players Brodie Merrill and Geoff Snider at his Langevin Block office. Jason Ransom/PMO)

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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