Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Canada's Government Secretly Suspended Afghan Detainee Handovers Last Fall

The minority Conservative government was under heavy fire from all of the opposition parties last year over reports of the alleged torture faced by some Afghan detainees who had been turned over to Afghan authorities. Anyone who followed those House of Commons debates during Question Period or the resulting media covergae will recall the standard talking point: The Taliban & al Qaeda lie about torture just to get attention - the same line used by Donald Rumsfeld when he was confronted about similar torture allegations.

You'd think that if the Conservatives actually had a real defence to those charges - something to back up their claim that they were investigating them - they would have presented it. Instead, they held their ground and defended the detainee transfer agreement that had been signed by General Rick Hillier in 2005 and then modified the agreement in an attempt to make Canadians believe that they were on top of the situation.

We now learn that the Conservative government secretly stopped the transfer of detainees to the Afghan government last November - in the midst of the entire mess. In other words, they've lied to all of us yet again.

OTTAWA–In a secret policy shift almost three months ago, the Canadian government stopped transferring Afghan prisoners to local authorities upon witnessing evidence of torture, according to a bombshell letter.

The revelation comes a year after the Conservative government ridiculed its opponents for raising torture allegations and Prime Minister Stephen Harper accused them of being pro-Taliban.

The abrupt shift was divulged in a letter submitted this week by federal lawyers to a pair of human rights organizations that have launched a case in Federal Court.

A prisoner told Canadian officials he'd been beaten unconscious, whipped with electrical cables, belted with a rubber hose, and he told the Canadians exactly where they could find the torture instruments.

After showing them a bruise, he led the Canadians to his prison cell where they discovered the hose and cable under a chair.

That Nov. 5 account is one of numerous allegations of torture included in government documents filed in advance of a Federal Court appearance Thursday. Another one describes electrocution.

Civil libertarians and opposition parties have warned that Canada could be violating the Geneva conventions by turning over captives to Afghan authorities with the knowledge they could be tortured.

Amnesty International and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association have sued Ottawa in an effort to block further transfers – and the resulting court documents are the only reason Canada's policy shift has come to light.

When Amnesty International pressed for details about the Nov. 5 incident, government lawyer J. Sanderson Graham sent the group a letter this week explaining what happened next.

Graham said Canadian authorities were informed of "a credible allegation of mistreatment " during that visit with prisoners in an Afghan detention facility.

"As a consequence, there have been no transfers of detainees to Afghan authorities since that date," said Graham's letter.

"The allegation is under investigation by the Afghan authorities. Canada will resume transferring detainees when it believes it can do so in accordance with its international legal obligations."

And this ought to be the final nail in this government's coffin after all of the ranting and raving they did last year against anyone who dared to bring up the torture allegations:

The Conservatives did not officially confirm the policy change, calling it an operational military matter that is the sole responsibility of the Canadian Forces.

"The government will not provide any comment on operational matters," said Harper spokeswoman Sandra Buckler.

Suddenly it's an "operational military matter"? Just how obtuse does this government think Canadians are? It wasn't an "operational military matter" when the Conservatives went out of their way day after day to try to reassure Canadians that the detainee agreement was being followed. (Remember when they said the Red Cross was checking in on those detainees, only to have to admit later that they were wrong when the Red Cross contradicted that so-called "fact".)

Just what else is this government lying about and, more importantly, how on earth can they continue to do so while peoples' lives are at risk? They were told repeatedly that allegations of torture resulting from Canadian soldiers handing over suspects to the Afghan government also put our soldiers at risk. If Harper and his worthless cabinet had actually been thinking, they would have realized that a public announcement regarding the suspension of the detainee handovers last fall could have helped to minimize that possibility. Instead, they said nothing - other than to continually insult anyone who brought up the concerns. Once again, they've backed themselves into a corner and Canadians are left to bear the brunt of what they have done as they further tarnish this country's reputation with their reckless disregard for human life.

How long will we allow this to go on? Are we supposed to trust these lying bastards to properly investigate what's happened?

A spring election can't come soon enough, as far as I'm concerned.

Related:

CBC News has more on files released to the BC Civil Liberties Association in this case outlining the torture allegations as a result of their FOIA request.

The British Columbia Civil Liberties Association says it obtained the heavily censored documents as part of its court case in conjunction with Amnesty International demanding that the Canadian military stop the transfer of prisoners.

The association said the documents, made available on its website on Monday, are an exchange between diplomatic and Foreign Affairs Department personnel who visited various facilities in Afghanistan.

The diplomatic communiqu├ęs — marked "secret" — disclose that Canadian officials were aware that the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) engaged in forms of torture of prisoners after they were transferred into NDS custody, the rights group said.

The documents contain summaries of interviews with detainees, who report being whipped with cables, shocked with electricity and beaten unconscious while in Afghan custody. One detainee interviewed showed fresh welts on his body, then led Canadian investigators to discover a hidden electrical cable and rubber hose he said was used to strike him.

Dates and other key information on the documents have been blacked out, making it difficult to determine the time frame of the exchange. The Globe and Mail reported Tuesday that the reports were filed six months after the Canadian government put in place what it said was an improved transfer agreement with Afghan authorities to monitor detainee treatment.

Among the several prisoners who declined to give their names to Canadian officials, one who said he was beaten with electrical cables while blindfolded said he wanted to remain anonymous "as to avoid any possible repercussions," one of the documents said.

The documents also describe the sometimes poor record-keeping by Afghan authorities, as well as the difficulty Canadian officials encountered in trying to determine whether the detainee they were visiting at facilities was captured by Canadian forces, or was even the person they were seeking to interview.

The BC Civil Liberties Association has a pdf file of these documents on their site. I'll post updates on the court case as they come in.

Update: 78th Canadian soldier killed in Afghanistan
 

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