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opinion

All of Canada's assurances have proven false on the detention of prisoners handed over to the Afghan authorities. The prisoners appear to have been tortured, and Canada is hardly in a position to claim it did not know what was going on. At best, it tried not to know; at worst, it knew and said nothing.

Among those who gave assurances that the prisoners were properly treated (or who rejected claims of prisoner abuse) are Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor, Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day and Brigadier-General David Fraser. The name on Canada's detainee agreement with the Afghans, signed in December, 2005, is Gen. Rick Hillier, Canada's Chief of Defence Staff.

With senior ministers in the Canadian government and the heads of the military staking their credibility on the treatment of detainees, Canada might have been expected to inquire into whether their assurances would hold up to scrutiny.

If The Globe and Mail's Graeme Smith could find out about a pattern of extreme abuse, including the use of electrical currents, boiling water and beatings with cables, it defies belief that Canada could not.

For a country that just conducted a painful self-examination, lasting nearly three years, into how Canadian citizen Maher Arar wound up in a Syrian torture cell (where he was beaten with cables), this is shattering news.

Canada can not, after all that, claim merely to be playing by the rules of a tough part of the world. That would be naked hypocrisy.

It is still government policy -- or should be -- that the torturers on our side are no more justifiable than anyone else's. This country is a signatory to the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which forbids returning people to another state where there are substantial grounds to believe they will be tortured.

There is a practical reason, too, for not being complicit in torture; such complicity may put Canadians at higher risk of being tortured if they fall into the enemy's control.

The first job for the Canadian government now must be to stop all transfers of prisoners to Afghan authorities immediately until a new process can be developed, in agreement with Afghanistan, to provide a high level of confidence that they will not be tortured when handed over to local authorities.

At the same time, Canada needs to ensure that all current detainees turned over by Canada are safe from abuse. The Netherlands has a strict agreement with the Afghans that allows its diplomats and military officials access to any prisoners. It has never been clear why Canada has not obtained a similar agreement.

Mr. O'Connor, the Defence Minister, needs to explain why Parliament, and Canadians in general, should maintain confidence in him. He misled the country by maintaining, for nearly a year, that the Red Cross was monitoring the prisoners for Canada. The Red Cross, it turned out, was doing no such thing.

Gen. Hillier needs to say what steps he took to ascertain that his agreement with the Afghans was being respected.

In the end, it is not Mr. O'Connor's or Gen. Hillier's reputation at stake. It is Canada's.

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