Harper government strategy on torture: Talk out the clock

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Richard Colvin: "According to our information, the likelihood is that all the Afghans we handed over were tortured...We kept hopeless records, and apparently to prevent any scrutiny, the Canadian Forces leadership concealed all this behind walls of secrecy....Instead of winning hearts and minds, we caused Kandaharis to fear the foreigners...Canada's detainee practices in my view alienated us from the population and strengthened the insurgency." Testifying before the House of Commons Special Committee, Nov. 18.

Peter MacKay: "Clearly the reality is there is no credible evidence, none, zero, to suggest that a Taliban prisoner transferred from Canadian Forces was ever abused." Question Period, Nov. 19.

John Baird: "I should remind members opposite that there has never been a single, solitary proven allegation involving a transferred Taliban prisoner." Question Period, Nov. 20.

Peter MacKay: "There has never been a single, solitary proven allegation of abuse of a detainee, a Taliban prisoner, transferred by Canadian Forces." Question Period, Dec. 2.

General Walter Natynczyk, Chief of Defence Staff: "I want to correct my statement made to the [Special Committee] yesterday...The individual who was beaten by the Afghan police was in fact in Canadian custody [on June 14, 2006]..." Press Conference at National Defence Headquarters, Dec. 9.

Section Commander's Report from Afghanistan, quoted by General Natynczyk: "We then photographed the individual prior to handing him over to ensure that if the Afghan national police did assault him as it happened in the past, that we would have a visual record of his condition." Field Report, June 14, 2006.

Stephen Harper: "It's the opposition who is accusing our soldiers of committing war crimes -- not this government...this government has defended, in all cases, our Canadian soldiers' actions." In French in Question Period, Dec. 9.

The record is clear. The ground on which the Minister of National Defence, Peter MacKay, was standing when he said there was "no evidence" to substantiate the testimony of ex-diplomat and intelligence officer Richard Colvin has been pulled out from under him.

Prior to the bombshell dropped on the government by General Natynczyk, MacKay had gone as far as to say on CTV's Power Play on Nov. 19 that Colvin's accusations were based on information which may have been propagated by Taliban sources. In other words, Colvin was likely a Taliban dupe.

This is the hallmark of the Harper government. When its members are pushed into a tight corner, they lash out at critics and political opponents, labeling them unpatriotic cretins who prefer the Taliban to Canada's brave soldiers. Meanwhile, they alone -- the Conservatives -- walk the lonely path of virtue, serving the nation in a difficult hour.

Even when they have been exposed as incompetents or liars engaged in a deliberate cover-up, the members of this government concede nothing. As far as they are concerned, there will be no independent inquiry into the detainee scandal.

Stephen Harper and Peter MacKay are cynically talking out the clock. The House of Commons is about to rise for the Christmas recess and will not sit again until the end of January. By that time, they hope, Canadians will have moved on to other concerns.

Watching Peter MacKay in Question Period and delivering testimony to the parliamentary committee has been instructive. He repeats the same answer over and over, stressing the virtue of our soldiers and the perfidy of the opposition parties. In the parliamentary committee, his opening statement went on so long that, aided by a couple of breaks for votes in the House, he only had to face a few questions from the committee members. In answering those questions, he typically returned to square one, describing the mission and its purposes, and saying next to nothing about the issues raised. Later, of course, the Conservatives will insist that they were compliant in cooperating with the committee, yet another reason why no special inquiry is needed.

The government is making the assumption that Canadians are too befuddled to follow the details of all of this. Harper and his colleagues believe that if they hunker down and stick to their line, nothing will harm them. They cynically believe that torture in Afghanistan is an issue that only concerns a few pointy-heads, not the majority of double-double drinking Canadians.

And then one fine day with another election, and a majority, the Conservatives won't ever have to listen to the nobodies on the other side of the aisle in the irrelevant "talking shop" that is Parliament.

James Laxer, a professor of political science in the department of equity studies at York University, is the author of Mission of Folly: Canada and Afghanistan.

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