OTTAWA — The Harper government has struck a new detainee transfer agreement with Afghanistan that includes stringent safeguards for follow-up monitoring to prevent torture and abuse that were previously absent, it was revealed in federal court today.
The new deal signed this morning in Kabul by Canada's new ambassador to Afghanistan, closes the gaping holes that rights groups claim existed in the original agreement signed by chief of defence staff Lieutenant-General Rick Hillier in Dec 2005.
The announcement stunned a packed federal court hearing in Ottawa where a call for an immediate halt to transfers was about to being when lawyers for the federal government brought the new agreement to court.
Federal Court Judge Michael Kelen told the court the deal was a major development that took the urgency out of deciding whether to block future transfers.
“It probably wouldn't have happened if this court hadn't been happening,” he said as he announced a postponement of proceedings.
Well, that's convenient, isn't it?
More via CP:
The new arrangement allows Canadian officials greater access to insurgents turned over to the Afghans by Canadian soldiers. Among its provisions is a guarantee that captured fighters can be interviewed in private without the intimidating presence of their Afghan jailers.
The government negotiated the deal despite insisting that the allegations of torture are false. The Conservatives hope it will put an end to two weeks of bad press over their confusing and contradictory statements on the detainee issue.
"What we have done is enhance the 2005 agreement - that is exactly what people were calling for," said Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay.
But Amnesty International, which launched the Federal Court challenge on behalf of detainees, said the new deal isn't good enough.
"Canada is still not complying with its international obligations," said spokesman Alex Neve.
"This agreement does not sufficiently protect people from the risk of torture after being transferred and that's the bottom line."
Human rights groups note that prisoners often don't admit to having been tortured - especially when they're still in jail - out of fear of more torture.
The only solution, Neve said, is for Canada or NATO to establish a detention facility where Afghan guards can be properly trained to respect human rights.
The Federal Court case has been put on hold pending further examination of the transfer agreement.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said the new deal merely formalizes commitments the government already has from the Afghans.
"We have access (to prisons) and can get information whenever we want it," he said in Vancouver.
He also repeated that the allegations of torture are "unsubstantiated" - but there has been no investigation into the claims.
They still don't get it.
And round and round it goes:
The agreement comes despite the fact that Harper has assured the House of Commons that the old deal was working well.
The Conservative government has also insisted that allegations of abuse are false even though no investigation has been conducted.
Since allegations surfaced that at least 30 detainees - captured by Canadians and turned over to Afghan authorities - might have been abused, the Conservatives have offered varying explanations.
After days of denying knowledge of any "specific" allegations of torture, Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day revealed Monday that Canadian correctional officers in Kandahar had indeed reported torture claims by two detainees.
Despite that admission, the government's submission in the Federal Court hearing states that: "Canadian officials have not received any notification of mistreatment or torture of detainees transferred from Canada to Afghan authorities."
Amnesty lawyers asked for a copy of the written report submitted by the officers, but was denied on the grounds that it violated national security.
And the kicker?
The government submission also reveals that the Canadian Forces have two procedures for handling Afghan detainees, including one that does not involve any oversight by human rights groups.
The documents show that Canadian troops are authorized to hand some detainees directly to Afghan authorities, rather than take them prisoner. That would appear to circumvent rules that require Canadian soldiers to notify human rights monitors when they detain Afghan militants.
You'd think that the judge in this case, armed with that knowledge, would have granted the injunction to temporarily halt the transfer of detainees.
The more that's revealed about this file, the murkier it gets.
Related: Liberal party statement on the latest tory maneuverings.
The NDP declares O'Connor is Unfit for Duty
The Galloping Beaver has a post about General Rick Hillier's political grandstanding.
The BC Civil Liberties Association site.
Amnesty International Canada
Human Rights Watch Afghanistan page. Are we going the way of the US military with these cases?