Denial And Deceit: The Harper Government And Torture In Afghanistan

Canada has long been known as a peacekeeping nation; lauded for our humanitarian missions and respected for our international contributions. The unassuming nature of Canadian soldiers garners an admiration few other militaries can boast; A history of moral and honourable service.

But for the mission in Afghanistan, the ethics and standards that once guided military decisions have been all but abandoned by the military brass. Under the Harper government, the rules governing the battlefield are ignored; the Geneva conventions are flouted and war crimes are committed.

The Prime Minister has long been aware of the repercussions his policy on detainees was having, and the implications on his government if the warnings were not heeded. But it wasn’t until a diplomat, who’d been muzzled by Harper, broke his silence that most Canadians became aware of the misconduct being perpetrated by our government in Afghanistan.

Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin began working for the Department of Foreign Affairs in Kandahar, shifting later to Kabul where he was the second in command at the Canadian Embassy. His 2006 arrival in Afghanistan came one month after the U.S. State department issued a report concerning the “continued and routine” torture and abuse of Afghan detainees by local authorities, including “pulling out fingernails and toenails, burning with hot oil, beatings, sexual humiliation, and sodomy.”

In November 2009 during his first appearance before the Afghan Committee in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Colvin described what he encountered upon visiting detainees transferred by Canadian forces to the Afghan intelligence service, or NDS.

“As I learned more about our detainee practices, I came to a conclusion they were contrary to Canada’s values, contrary to Canada’s interests, contrary to Canada’s official policies and also contrary to international law. That is, they were un-Canadian, counterproductive and probably illegal,” Colvin testified. He also claimed many detainees were not “high-value targets,” but “according to a very authoritative source, many of the Afghans we detained had no connection to insurgency whatsoever … many were just local people: farmers; truck drivers; tailors, peasants – random human beings in the wrong place at the wrong time … From an intelligence point of view, they had little or no value.”

Colvin said he believed Canada’s “complicity in torture” undermined the efforts and goals of the strategy in Kandahar. “Instead of winning hearts and minds, we caused Kandaharis to fear the foreigners. Canada’s detainee practices alienated us from the population and strengthened the insurgency.”

The Canadian diplomat began alerting Ottawa to the “serious, imminent and alarming” circumstances surrounding detainees in 2006; sending a series of memos to both the senior ranks of the military and Department of National Defence.

“At first, we were mostly ignored,” Colvin recalled. “However by April 2007 we were receiving written messages from the senior Canadian government co-ordinator for Afghanistan to the effect that I should be quiet and do what I was told, and also phone messages from a DFAIT assistant deputy minister suggesting that, in future, we should not put things on paper, but instead use the telephone … Immediately, thereafter, the paper trail on detainees was reduced; Reports on detainees began sometimes to be censored with crucial information removed.”

Following his testimony, the Conservative government set their sights on Colvin; Intent to undermine his credibility and reputation. The relentless smearing of the well respected diplomat prompted twenty-three former Canadian ambassadors (joined later by an additional twelve) to release a letter to the media condemning the behaviour of the Conservative government.
One of the letters signatories, former ambassador Paul Durand, singled out Defence Minister Peter MacKay’s particularly reprehensible attacks.
“He savaged him in public, and ridiculed him,” said Durand. “And that’s not the way to treat a guy who’s doing his job. He is not a whistleblower. He was hauled before a parliamentary committee and had to state the truth.”

Though the government and military brass vehemently deny allegations it was aware of what was happening to detainees, a series of information leaks to the media reveal a pattern of deceit and denial from the Harper government and military brass.

Details emerged that military allies had lodged complaints over Canadian’s “secretive manner with which it handled detainees … stonewalling on providing basic information on the Afghans it was capturing.” Reports from The Globe and Mail note that “Mr. Colvin wasn’t the only foreign service officer relaying criticisms about detainee transfers to Ottawa. A Sept. 11, 2006, memo from a Canadian NATO staffer alerted the government to the fact that the ICRC had singled out Canada’s practice of handing over prisoners to the Afghans on the battlefield, a practice it feared could result in human-rights monitors losing track of detainees.”

It was also revealed that in 2007, Canadian diplomats in Afghanistan were ordered omit information regarding the treatment of detainees in reports sent to Ottawa. Sources told The Globe that the order, “issued soon after allegations of torture by Afghan authorities began appearing in public, was aimed at defusing the explosive human-rights controversy … There was a fear that graphic reports, even in censored form, could be uncovered by opposition parties and the media through access-to-information laws, leading to revelations that would further erode already-tenuous public support. The controversy was seen as ‘detracting from the narrative’ the Harper government was trying to weave around the mission, said one official. ‘It was meant to put on happy face’.”

In direct contrast to MacKay’s assertion “not a single Taliban prisoner turned over by Canadian Forces can be proven to have been abused,” uncensored documents and sworn testimony by senior officers detail an instance in 2006 where an detainee transferred to Afghan police was so severely beaten, Canadian troops had to intervene and ultimately took the man back. The Globe notes “the Canadian soldier’s account, handwritten in a field notebook in the hours after the June 19, 2006 incident, is corroborated by a medic’s examination of the detainee’s injuries and photographs, which the (Harper) government refuses to release.”

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has done everything in his power to deny opposition MP’s access to key documents, allowing them access only to heavily redacted files ‘in the interest of national security.’ However, upon close examination it’s clear the redactions have less to do with national security, and everything to do with concealing the government’s knowledge of torture.

In a delay tactic veiled as co-operation, Harper called upon former supreme court justice Frank Iacobucci to review the unredacted documents. It’s unclear how may documents Iacobucci will review, which documents he’ll be provided, how long it will take, or if the government will even take into consideration recommendations made. Meanwhile, opposition parties issued motions in the House of Commons calling for a vote that would hold the government in contempt of parliament, a ruling that would force Harper to provide opposition MP’s with the unredacted files they’ve repeatedly requested. The decision currently rests with speaker of the house Peter Milliken, who is expected to issue his decision this week.

But the opposition parties are hardly alone in condemning the government’s lack of transparency surrounding the treatment of detainees. The Military Police Complaints Commission (MPCC) are now directly accusing Harper of withholding information pertinent to the inquiry, warning that “the (Harper) government’s refusal to release key letters written by Canadian Forces commanders raises troubling concerns about Ottawa’s approach to divulging information in this matter.”

Back in 2007, the MPCC, and then chairman Peter Tinsley, ordered public hearings on the issue of detainees “to ensure a full investigation of the grave allegations.” The Harper government initially agreed to fully co-operate with the MPCC, Defence Minster MacKay promising “(the MPCC) will get the co-operation with respect both to information disclosures and the funding necessary to have a full-blown hearing.”

A Globe report from November 2008 outlined that “more than 20 months after it first promised full co-operation, the Harper government has moved to block public hearings into whether it ordered Canadian soldiers to transfer prisoners to Afghan security forces knowing the detainees would likely be tortured … The government is seeking a Federal Court order that the MPCC can neither investigate nor hold hearings into allegations that transferred prisoners were tortured and that senior government officials and military officers knew it would happen. Government censors have blacked out key passages of secret documents that showed that ministers knew that torture was rife in Afghan prisons.”

In essence, the Harper government has been working to avoid accountability for three long years, and counting.

In December 2009, a year after effectively shutting down the MPCC’s attempt at a public inquiry, Harper refused to extend the contract of Tinsley and opted against appointing someone to replace the outgoing MPCC chairman. Tinsley warned of a ‘chilling effect’ by the Harper government in their ongoing efforts to dodge accountability regarding the treatment of Afghan detainees, and Harper likely believed he’d have no further ‘intrusions’ from the MPCC. So it came as a surprise when, in February 2010, former Windsor police chief Glenn Stannard announced he’d take over the acting duties of former chairman Tinsley since the government hadn’t ‘gotten around’ to filling the vacancy. In other words, the MPCC would resume hearings on the transfer and treatment of detainees, despite the government’s best efforts to block further inquiries on the matter.

No sooner had the MPCC reconvened for hearings, than a series of explosive allegations came to light.

Colvin’s much anticipated return to Ottawa provided further evidence that the government was not only aware of torture, but that it deliberately looked the other way. Colvin testified that his warnings of torture were credible and substantiated, but the government and the military didn’t want to deal with the ‘hot potato’ issue of detainee abuse. He recounted a 2007 meeting in Ottawa with upwards of fifteen government officials, where he urged them to stop transferring detainees to the NDS.

“You know the NDS tortures people. That’s what they do,” Colvin told the officials in attendance. “And if we don’t want our detainees tortured we shouldn’t give them to the NDS.” Colvin said that the government note-taker at the meeting put her pen down and immediately stopped recording.
He also alleged the government actively prevented detainee monitoring by the International Committee of the Red Cross. “In practice we were blocking them from doing that. They were losing many, if not most, or possibly all, of our detainees.”

The Red Cross had raised concerns over the government’s refusal to take its calls regarding detainees; Waiting weeks, or months, before it bothered to notify the Red Cross about detainees transferred to Afghan authorities. The information delay made it impossible for the Red Cross to effectively locate or follow up on detainees sent by Canadians to the notorious NDS.

The MPCC also heard testimony from Lt.-Col. Gilles Sansterre, commander of the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service. Sansterre addressed a 2007 incident where an Afghan’s claim of abuse after being transferred to the NDS by Canadian soldiers was ignored. After the man, who was covered in welts and bruises, showed officials a hidden stash of electrical cables and a rubber hose used to beat him, his accusations were taken seriously. Though military investigators deemed the allegations credible enough to temporarily halt all detainee transfers, they failed to further investigate the matter. Sansterre conceded that the failure to probe the claim of abuse violated the Geneva conventions and ‘raises the possibility’ that war crimes were committed.

Perhaps the most damning allegations emerged from an April 14 special Commons committee where Ahmadshah Malgarai, or ‘Pasha’ as he was known by his colleagues in the Canadian Forces, submitted stunning allegations about the treatment of detainees. Malgarai, a Canadian citizen born in Afghanistan, served as an interpreter and cultural adviser for Canada’s Joint Task Force Afghanistan unit. He is well respected among his peers and provided MP’s with letters of commendation he’d received from both the military and Afghan government, reaffirming his credibility. In a day of dramatic testimony, Malgarai called out the Conservative government for misleading the public, saying the Canadian military intentionally ‘subcontracted’ torture to Afghan security.

“Canada’s government says detainees have never been transferred to NDS if there is a risk of abuse; but this is a lie,” Malgarai told the hearing. “I saw Canada’s military intelligence sending detainees to NDS, when the detainees did not tell them what they expect to hear. If the interrogators thought a detainee was lying, the military sent him to NDS for more questions, ‘Afghan style.’ Translation: abuse and torture …. the military used the NDS as subcontractors for abuse and torture.”

Malgarai insisted the routine occurrence of torture was well known throughout the military ranks, and all the way up to the Department of Defence. “I cannot believe that Mr. Defence Minister Peter Mackay says that he doesn’t know,” the former translator stated. “I want him to sit across from me look me in the eyes and say he doesn’t know.”

Meanwhile, a secret memo obtained by the CBC effectively debunks Harper’s claim he fixed the flawed detainee transfer agreement in 2007, and backs up testimony that the government was aware that torture was, and still is, taking place. The memo, “circulated at the highest levels of government” in mid 2009, reveals that while the government was telling the pubic the detainee problem was fixed, it was quietly sounding the alarm bells. The confidential memo warns “the notoriously brutal Afghan security service, the NDS, did not change its ways after the new agreement and is still was ‘organized according to a Soviet-KGB model’ with ‘considerable scope for improper methods’ which ‘entails a degree of risk to Canadian interests.'”

The problem, notes the CBC, is that “the Geneva convention, and Canadian law, forbid handing prisoners over to a known risk of torture. But Canada still transfers prisoners to the NDS which is known to use torture routinely.” The memo even “names the head of the NDS … as a man who wants to inspire fear. (He) has openly stated that merely interviewing suspects is not enough to get information out of them.” It acknowledges Canada may be an accomplice in torture, and ‘runs the risk of appearing to condone human rights abuses and acts, which would be illegal under canadian law.’

The CBC report included testimony from a Canadian general who said the NDS “were a very valuable partner … we acted on the intelligence we received from the NDS.” In other words, Canada did use intelligence from the NDS; intelligence which was obtained through torture, which the government was fully aware, making them complicit in war crimes.

A report just released by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) gives credence to Colvin’s 2009 testimony that Canadian forces were taking six times as many detainees as the British and 20 times as many as the Dutch. The statistics, compiled by the AIHRC, reveal of the 267 suspected insurgents transferred by NATO forces in the first 9 months of 2009, Canada nearly doubled it’s allies, transferring 163 prisoners to the NDS. By contrast, Britain’s transferred 93 detainees, while the Netherlands handed over 10, and Denmark just 1. This raises the possibility that the allegations Canadian forces captured mostly innocent people are accurate.

With evidence continuing to mount supporting the claim Afghans transferred by Canadian forces were being tortured by the NDS, the credibility of the Harper government continues to crumble under the weight of the lies it wrapped itself in. As they hide behind Canadian soldiers, accusing those searching for answers of not supporting the troops, the Conservatives demonstrate their cowardice by refusing to be accountable for their actions.

George Peterson, a veteran of the second world war, is also looking for answers. Once a soldier and a guard, he became prisoner number 38 and was systematically starved and abuse for nearly 4 years. He’s not naive to the realities of war, yet knows the importance of the Geneva conventions. Peterson is particularly bothered by the denials from the Canadian government. “I think the Prime Minister, and the Minister of Defence are trying to pass the buck. Blaming the opposition that they’re picking on the military. I don’t think they are. That’s not right.” Peterson hopes there is an inquiry, because without answers “our reputation will suffer.”

Indeed it will, Mr. Peterson. And you, your fellow veterans, and current members of the Canadian Forces certainly deserve better.

Cross-posted at rabble.ca

UPDATE May 7: Afghan authorities beat detainees ‘on a whim,’ military inquiry finds – Investigation into 2006 incident was launched after Chief of Defence Staff had to correct himself a day after Commons testimony

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