Feature

Canada: Detainee abuse, followed by a coverup

Confirming the evidence of a senior diplomat based in Afghanistan, the head of Canada’s armed forces has admitted that at least one suspected Taliban member turned over to Afghan authorities had indeed been tortured.

The Canadian government has betrayed one of its diplomats—and exposed itself in a lie, said the Edmonton Journal in an editorial. Richard Colvin, a senior diplomat based in Afghanistan, testified last month before the House of Commons that Afghan prisoners whom Canadian forces handed over to Afghanistan’s intelligence service in 2006 and 2007 had been tortured. Colvin said he’d sent dispatches warning that such torture was taking place, but that government and military officials ignored the evidence and continued to hand off detainees to the Afghans. Remember, Colvin was “no scatty whistle-blower or bitter ex-employee” but a working civil servant summoned by Parliament. Yet “for his honesty, the career diplomat was pilloried—especially by Defense Minister Peter MacKay.” MacKay, his aides, and numerous military officials attacked Colvin, calling his allegations “ludicrous” and smearing his character. Fast-forward to last week, when “in a remarkable, 180-degree turn,” the head of Canada’s armed forces, Gen. Walt Natynczyk, admitted that at least one suspected Taliban member turned over to Afghan authorities had indeed been tortured.

It gets worse, said the Montreal Gazette. Not only did the government smear Colvin, but it also tried to “play the patriot card,” accusing anyone who alleged detainee abuse of failing to support the troops. Never mind that nobody was accusing Canadian troops of wrongdoing—in fact, they were shown to have acted admirably, swooping in to rescue the Taliban detainee once they learned that he had been beaten. Now that the military has conceded that Afghans were in fact tortured, the opposition is baying for MacKay’s blood. The whole issue is “still more evidence that it’s not the mistake that gets you in trouble, it’s the coverup.” MacKay will have to answer.

MacKay isn’t the only one who’s facing questions, said Greg Weston in The Toronto Sun. “Rarely have so many officials in high places allegedly known so little about so much over so long a time.” Gordon O’Connor, MacKay’s predecessor, has already had his own parliamentary testimony “shredded.” He claimed that during his 18 months as defense minister, he’d never received a single warning about possible abuse. Yet in 2007, while he was minister, Canadian troops stopped transferring detainees to Afghan custody “precisely over concerns of abuse.” All this simply “cries out for a public inquiry.”

We could be talking about war crimes here, said Payam Akhavan in the Toronto National Post. Colvin said he had “tried repeatedly to alert Canadian authorities that Afghan prisoners were being turned over to certain torture in Afghan prisons.” Sending detainees to be tortured is a war crime. And the law is clear—it’s not the soldiers who are criminally liable but those who order them to transfer the prisoners to torturers. In this case, the ones in charge were the very top brass and ministers who had tried to discredit Colvin’s parliamentary testimony. That’s why the inquiry into these allegations must be independent and impartial—not a government investigation. It’s the only way to demonstrate that Canada still has a “commitment to the rule of law.”

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