Canada faces allegations of torture complicity

AP News
Posted: Nov 19, 2009 6:36 PM

Canada's defense minister on Thursday attacked the credibility of a senior Canadian diplomat who alleged that government officials ignored evidence that prisoners handed over to Afghanistan's intelligence service a few years ago were tortured.

Defense Minister Peter MacKay dismissed calls for a public inquiry after intelligence officer Richard Colvin testified before a Parliament committee earlier this week. Colvin alleged that captives taken by Canadian troops and handed over to Afghan authorities were subjected to beatings and electric shocks in 2006 and early 2007.

MacKay said there is no evidence to support Colvin's allegations and painted him in Parliament as a Taliban dupe who has asked Canadians to accept the word of prisoners who, as Taliban members, have been trained to lie.

The official Liberal opposition party and the New Democratic Party called for a public inquiry into the allegations, saying it is in the interest of the Conservative government to establish whether it ignored reports that prisoners were being tortured.

MacKay rejected the idea, telling Parliament there are "incredible holes" in Colvin's story. "There has not been a single, solitary proven allegation of abuse involving a transferred Taliban prisoner by Canadian forces," he said.

Canada has about 2,800 soldiers in the volatile southern Afghan city of Kandahar on a combat mission that is due to end in 2011. Canadian troops first began transferring detainees to Afghan authorities in late 2005.

Colvin, now an intelligence officer at the Canadian embassy in Washington, spent 18 months in Afghanistan during 2006 and 2007. He said Wednesday that Canadian officials knew detainees faced a high risk of torture for a year and a half but continued to order military police to hand over detainees to the Afghani National Directorate of Security.

Colvin said he sent several reports to senior military and government officials, which he said were ignored. He said former Gen. Rick Hillier, Canada's top military commander and main spokesman for the war in Afghanistan, knew detainees faced torture.

The Red Cross tried for three months in 2006 to warn the Canadian army in Kandahar about what was happening to prisoners, but no one would take their phone calls, said Colvin.

According to the intelligence officer, Canada took roughly six times more prisoners than British forces and 20 times more than the Dutch. He said the vast majority of the prisoners were ordinary Afghans, many with no connection to the insurgency.

Colvin also said he was told in 2007 by Prime Minister Stephen Harper's foreign affairs adviser, David Mulroney, to leave no paper trail about the allegations.

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But the Conservative government fought back Thursday, saying the government has always taken its responsibility regarding the treatment of Taliban prisoners seriously.

Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said Canadian civilian officials have made more than 182 visits to detention facilities in Kandahar and Kabul to monitor the efforts and to train and mentor local correctional authorities, Cannon said.

During a visit earlier this year to Kandahar's infamous Sarposa prison, Cannon said he and then-public safety minister Stockwell Day asked prisoners personally whether they had been tortured and they said no. He said prisoners told officials that they were content with the way they had been treated.

"When we've had specific allegations of abuse, we've acted, and we will not tolerate proven evidence of abuse," Cannon said in a conference call from Kabul, where he was on hand for the inauguration of re-elected Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Transfers were suspended for a short time in 2007 after Canadian officials saw evidence that one prisoner was abused by his Afghan jailer after being handed over.

In May 2007, the government signed a deal with Kabul to increase protection for detainees.