Six years ago a senior diplomat's allegation that Canada was complicit in the torture of Afghan prisoners embroiled the country in a national controversy that nearly toppled the Conservative government.
Now, in the lead up to a federal election, a new report renews calls for a judicial inquiry into the explosive affair, arguing that "unanswered questions" remain in this murky chapter of Canada's history.
The 96-page report, released Wednesday by the Rideau Institute and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, investigates how the Canadian Forces handled the transfer of hundreds of detainees to local authorities during the military mission in Afghanistan, in particular whether Canadians knowingly delivered prisoners into the hands of torturers. It alleges that Canadian officials violated international law by signing prisoner-transfer agreements with Afghan government, despite reports — including ones from the United Nations, the US Department of State and Canada's own Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade — warning that the use of torture was widespread throughout Afghan prisons and detention facilities.
"In transferring hundreds to the custody of the National Directorate of Security in Kandahar, Canada failed to prevent the torture of many Afghan detainees," Omar Sabry, who authored the report, stated in a release. While there is no new revelation in the report, the president of the Rideau Institute, Peggy Mason, said there is "ample evidence of the Harper government's systemic efforts to keep parliament and the public in the dark" and that the only appropriate remedy is for an inquiry.
"What I detail at length in the report is that there are various things that indicate that this is unfinished business. And that there are many unanswered questions," Sabry told VICE News.
The issue of Canada's handling of suspected Taliban prisoners first came to public attention in early 2007 and quickly crescendoed into a major political scandal after The Globe and Mail published interviews with 30 men who described the brutal torture they faced following transfer from Canadian to Afghan custody. In 2009, diplomat Richard Colvin told a parliamentary committee that Canada "detained, and handed over for severe torture, a lot of innocent people." None of the abuses were committed by Canadian forces and an investigative commission cleared eight military police officers of any wrongdoing, finding that they had no grounds to investigate the treatment of prisoners after they were handed over to local authorities and that they were kept in the dark by the Ottawa-based military command.
However, under international law a country that turns over to a prisoner to certain torture can be charged with war crimes.
Military, judicial and parliamentary investigations into the issue from 2007 to 2009 were stymied by the government's refusal — citing national security concerns — to disclose uncensored records that would have revealed who knew what and when about the torture of the Afghan detainees.
On Dec. 30, 2009, after the House of Commons passed an order demanding the release of the uncensored documents, Prime Minister Stephen Harper prorogued parliament, thereby stalling the parliamentary investigation. The full bevy of uncensored documents was never released and the issue faded from public attention after the Tories won a majority in the 2011 election.
The new report on the torture of Afghan detainees comes out in the midst of a tight federal election that has the three major parties starkly divided over renewed military engagement in the Middle East, this time to fight the so-called Islamic State.
As the New Democrats, Liberals and Conservatives debate bombing raids into Syria and troops in Iraq, Sarby said that he would like to see both voters and politicians return their attention to the subject of Canada's handling of prisoners during the war in Afghanistan.
"This is an issue that is extremely important and it merits further scrutiny from the Canadian public at such a critical time during the election campaign … We are hoping that all political parties will pay attention to this issue and will commit to launching a public inquiry after Oct. 19," he told VICE News.
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Rachel Browne contributed to this report.