Court challenge to torture in Afghanistan

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An interview with Alex Neve, the Secretary General of Amnesty International in Canada

In Canada, Amnesty International has filed a landmark lawsuit directed at the Canadian government, on the basis that Canada is violating the constitution by handing over prisoners to Afghan authorities in the context of NATO military operations in the country and accusations of widespread torture in Afghan prisons.

Human rights organizations in Canada, including Amnesty International and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, have sued the government in the context of widespread media reports that prisoners captured by Canadian forces were facing torture in Afghan prisons.

Last week a major decision was released by Canada's Federal Court, which ruled the lawsuit filed concerning torture in Afghanistan has grounds on which to move forward despite major legal maneuvers from government legal representatives to have the legal challenge thrown out of court.

Currently Canada maintains over 2500 troops in Afghanistan, mainly in the southern province of Kandahar, in a military mission that the majority of people in Canada don't support, according to repeated opinion polls. Alex Neve, the Secretary General of Amnesty International in Canada, comments on the current Federal Court case and answers questions from Stefan Christoff of Radio Tadamon!

Alex Neve: Amnesty International has had long standing concerns with the approach that Canada has been taking to handling prisoners apprehended by Canadian forces in the context of conflict in Afghanistan. Canada has been deployed in Afghanistan since early 2002 and since then Canada has been taking prisoners.

As a human rights organization we want to ensure that Canada is treating those prisoners in a way that is completely consistent with international human rights standards. Initially Canada decided that they would hand all prisoners over to U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Amnesty raised concerns on this matter given that there are many concerns related to U.S. practices in Afghanistan, including the fact that many of those prisoners were going to end up being held in Guantanamo Bay.

Amnesty asked Canada to change and revise that practice. After several years the government finally decided to do so, but rather than taking the responsibility of taking the prisoners onto their own shoulders, they decided to turn to another country, this time Afghanistan itself and since the end of 2005 Canada's practice has been to hand the prisoners to Afghan authorities.

Our concern is that in Afghan prisons torture is rampant and systematic, in which context in our view it's very likely that a good number of those who are transferred from Canadian custody into the Afghan prison system will therefore end up being tortured. If the risk of torture is a real one, which Amnesty believes it is, it's incumbent upon Canada and it's actually a matter of international legal obligation not to hand the prisoners over and to instead adopt some other approach, some other way of keeping those prisoners in custody that corresponds with international law.

Stefan Christoff: Can you address the current legal challenge that Amnesty has launched in Canada, and explain Amnesty's role and specifically the Federal Court decision that was made this past week?

Neve: Amnesty tried repeatedly to have this matter addressed through political channels, we repeatedly brought our concerns to the attention of the Minister of National Defense in particular, asking that Canada adopt a new approach, a new strategy and those requests fell on deaf ears. The government refused to revise its policy or practice in any way and in the end Amnesty felt that there was no other option but to turn to the courts for a remedy.

Amnesty joined up with the British Colombia Civil Liberties Association, which shared our concerns, and we launched a lawsuit in February of this year in which we are seeking a Federal Court order that the practice of handing prisoners over to Afghan authorities cease.

The Canadian government is fighting vigorously against our lawsuit and earlier last month we were in court responding to a government application to try to have our lawsuit summarily dismissed at the outset as being groundless. The government threw every possible argument they could at the court in what really seemed like a desperate effort to try to have the lawsuit thrown out of court before it receives a full hearing.

On Monday [November 5], more quickly than expected, the Federal Court decision on that particular application came out and the government's application was unequivocally rejected on every count. It's a very strong judgment that underscores that the issues we have brought forward are important issues that are perfectly appropriate for a court to be looking at. Issues that are far from groundless and do involve very critical human rights concerns and on that basis the Federal Court has ruled that the case can go ahead and we look forward to a full hearing being set in the next two to three months, we hope.

Christoff: Could you explain the details within the reports, the information that Amnesty International has received from the ground in Afghanistan regarding the situation of Afghan prisoners. Earlier this year there was a breaking story that was published in the Globe and Mail, written by Graeme Smith, detailing accounts of torture. Can you talk about the information that you have received that lead you to take action on this issue?

Neve: Sadly there is nothing new about the proposition that torture is systematic and widespread in Afghanistan. This is not something that has suddenly emerged since the 2001 war and the new government; it is a long-standing concern and reality in the Afghan prison system, an issue that Amnesty International has documented and reported on publicly for many, many years.

The particular concerns as to what happens to battle field prisoners who end up in Afghan prisons is a new issue. It's been very difficult to get clear information as to what is happening to those prisoners. From a Canadian perspective the government for instance refuses to identify who those prisoners are, refuses to give their names or any details. Also Canada refuses to allow them to have any access to lawyers, which makes it very difficult to do any specific research.

Amnesty very much welcomed the great work that the Globe and Mail was able to do in terms of getting access to some of the prisoners after they had been released from Afghan prisons. In the course of that work the Globe and Mail documented some very serious and disturbing allegations of torture. Now, they haven't been proven but they are very detailed allegations that are certainly credible and consistent with other information that is available to us with regard to the practice of torture in Afghanistan and therefore is something that the government should be taking very seriously.

Sadly instead, at every turn, from responding to questions in the House of Commons, or the kinds of arguments that the government lawyers have been advancing in court, instead the line that has been taken has been to try to diminish and dismiss out of hand these allegations because they come from "Taliban fighters" and therefore aren't worthy of consideration. Well, when it comes to torture it doesn't matter if you are a Taliban fighter or a humanitarian worker, you should not be tortured and allegations made that you have been tortured should be fairly and impartially investigated and that's where Canada is falling short.

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