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The Globe and Mail

Ottawa's deny, delay, disparage strategy: So far, it's working

A member of Reconnaissance Platoon, 1st Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, guards six of ten suspected Taliban prisoners captured in a raid on a compound in Northern Kandahar, in this May, 2006 file photo.


Deny, delay, disparage. For years, government ministers and Canada's top brass have marched in unison, fighting off accusations that turning prisoners over to Afghanistan's ill-trained and brutal security forces consigned them to torture and abuse.

So far, the government's three-pronged counterattack has been largely successful. Nearly four years after Canadian troops started waging a tough counterinsurgency in the Taliban heartland of Kandahar, the government continues to deny there has been a single proven instance of torture. At the same time, it has fought in Federal Court to scuttle an independent inquiry and continues to portray anyone who suggests that transferred detainees are tortured as a gullible lackey of the Taliban.

At every stage, ministers and generals have fired off flat denials only to retreat. Within weeks of deploying to Kandahar in 2006, then-defence-minister Gordon O'Connor confidently proclaimed that if any detainees were abused after handover, the Red Cross would promptly tell Ottawa.

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Mr. O'Connor is a former general, presumably schooled in the Geneva Conventions and the role of the Red Cross. Except he was wrong. Only after the Red Cross publicly contradicted him, pointing out that it was prohibited from ratting out the Afghans to the Canadians, did the minister apologize to the House of Commons for misleading it.

Further, he said there had been no credible reports of torture. But the government's own reports at the time indicated torture was common in the Afghan judicial system. "Extra judicial executions, disappearances, torture and detention without trial are all too common," was the blunt and unmistakable message crafted by Canada's embassy in Kabul in it's 2006 report on human rights - or the lack of them - in Afghanistan.

Not only did ministers insist they were unaware of torture - several said they hadn't read the Canadian report - they also continued to insist that if anything untoward was happening to transferred detainees, they would be told.

"We are not at the moment told of the problems that are being reported in the papers today," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said after The Globe and Mail published first-person accounts of torture and abuse in Kandahar from several eventually released detainees. That was in April of 2007.

Ministers were saying the same thing last week. Yet it is now clear that nearly a year earlier, Canada's senior diplomat in Kandahar, Richard Colvin, had been firing off grim warnings that transferred detainees were being tortured and that Canada's deal with Afghanistan, signed by then-general Rick Hillier, contained none of the follow-up safeguards and inspections that were included in prisoner-transfer agreements negotiated by the Netherlands and Britain. Transfer to torture is a war crime, set out in international law and the Geneva Conventions.

While saying there was nothing wrong with the Canadian transfer agreement, the government hurried to patch some of the holes, adding follow-up inspections. The very first one heard harrowing reports of post-transfer torture. So did almost every subsequent inspection. One beaten detainee could even show the Canadians the electrical cables used to torture him left under a chair in his cell. Canada filed formal complaints with the Afghans who promised investigations. No one was ever charged. Finally, the deputy Canadian commander in Afghanistan secretly ordered a halt to all transfers.Nearly four years after Canada's troops deployed to Kandahar and the first troubling reports about brutal treatment of prisoners after handover, Ottawa has clamped down ever tighter on information.

Ottawa has successfully denied information and documents, not only to the media and the public, but also to an independent military police inquiry, even though its members carry top-secret clearance.

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When the denials and delays fail, the government turns to disparaging those who raise evidence that the torture of transferred detainees is rife in Afghanistan. Mr. Colvin, the senior diplomat assigned to Kandahar in 2006, was promoted to an intelligence job in Washington after his Afghanistan tour. Yet government MPs now criticizes him as a gullible Taliban stooge.

So far, the deny, delay, disparage strategy has worked. There seems little chance of any inquiry until after the government pulls Canadian combat troops out of the fight about 18 months from now.

Meanwhile, Canada has poured millions into funding the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and given it a key role in monitoring transfers. Yet its last report, published six months ago, said: "Torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment are common in the majority of law-enforcement institutions and at least 98.5% of interviewed victims have been tortured. Institutions where torture has occurred include police (security, justice, traffic), prosecution office, national security, detention center, custody, prison, and national army."

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