Canada and torture in Afghanistan: The truth is still waiting to be heard

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The critics may love it, but Zero Dark Thirty has made U.S. senators John McCain, Carl Levin and Dianne Feinstein very angry. The trio of politicians says that, contrary to the movie's allegedly true portrayal, torture was never used to gain information on the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden.

But let it not be forgotten that torture was used in the hunt for countless other terror suspects. It turns out that Afghan security services were beating information out of prisoners all throughout the war, prisoners that the Canadian Forces had captured and were turning over to them on a regular basis.

There's more. According to a man named Richard Colvin, Canada's political, diplomatic and military leaders knew about this practice for years and did nothing.

Richard Colvin: The spark

 During his tenure as a political staff officer in Kandahar, Colvin wrote 17 memos warning that detainees handed over by Canadian personnel to local authorities were almost certainly being tortured in Afghan prisons. As Colvin attested in an affidavit, his warnings, which began in 2006, were sent to several military and government offices, including those of ambassadors, politicians and generals. These warnings, he stated, were met with indifference while detainees continued to be sent to questionable Afghan facilities.

The backlash

Ever since Colvin's claims were made public in 2007, several officials who served in Afghanistan have been adamant that Canada did an excellent job of monitoring detainee safety throughout the Afghan mission and that, aside from isolated reports of abuse which were responded to appropriately, they had no knowledge of detainees being tortured.

But inquiries into the matter have consistently painted a different picture, one of lax, even non-existent reporting, of buck passing and finger pointing between departments, of enormous cracks in the system.

A lack of accountability

In 2010, CSIS Director Richard Fadden commissioned an internal investigation into his agents' knowledge of detainee torture. The resulting report stated that CSIS had no responsibility for detainees beyond initial intake interviews. According to CSIS, prisoner transfers were performed solely by the Canadian Forces, and no CSIS agent ever heard any complaints of abuse.

But a subsequent Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) investigation uncovered serious gaps in CSIS’s monitoring process. SIRC found that CSIS did not keep comprehensive records of its interrogations and that, according to SIRC director Arthur T. Porter, "CSIS could have moved more quickly to put in place additional guidelines to promote greater accountability."

And the Canadian Forces, onto which CSIS dumped the entire onus of transfers, was no better at documenting the fate of its detainees. A 2007 Access to Information request filed by University of Ottawa law professor Amir Attaran turned up documents revealing that the Canadian Forces were not keeping tabs on detainees once they had been transferred into Afghan custody.

According to Colvin, the International Committee of the Red Cross, which ensures the safety of prisoners of war, voiced concern over Canada’s accountability at least as early as 2006. In memos he sent to the office of former Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay (now Minister of Defence), Colvin wrote that the Red Cross was angry about poor record keeping on the part of Canadian officials, which had resulted in the organization losing track of several prisoners.

The cover up

These revelations suggest that Colvin's higher-ups were, at the very least, derelict in their duty to watch for torture. But a pattern of government manipulation and lies surrounding the issue adds weight to claims that Canadian personnel knew about the abuse.

When Attaran filed his Access to Information request with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he was told that his desired documents had to be "reviewed" before being released. When Attaran finally received them, they had been heavily redacted. The government said the uncensored versions would put national security at risk.

More damning is the story of journalist Jeff Esau. He filed a similar Access to Information request prior to Attaran’s, and was told that there was no information to release. As Esau later testified to a parliamentary committee that he received a letter from Foreign Affairs that read, in part: "Please be advised that Canada does not produce an annual human rights report … Therefore no such report on human rights performance in other countries exists."

Shortly thereafter, however, Foreign Affairs provided Attaran with the thoroughly censored "Afghanistan–2006: Good Governance, Democratic Development and Human Rights," as well as blacked out versions of Afghanistan human rights reports dating back to 2002. Why Esau was told these documents did not exist has not been made clear.

Government stonewalling

By the end of 2009, widespread media coverage of Colvin’s memo testimony had led opposition MPs to ask how much Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government had known about detainee torture. Even after testimony by Canadian soldiers proved that knowledge of abuse had reached as high as ex-Chief-of-Staff Brigadier-General Joseph Deschamps, the Conservatives continued to freeze out investigations into the matter.

Eventually Harper called for Parliament to be prorogued, allegedly so that the Tories could "recalibrate the government's agenda." The move was widely criticized in politics and the media as a stalling tactic, meant to prevent opposition probes into detainee practices from toppling Harper’s tenuous minority government.

During the prorogation period, Harper continued to downplay questions about detainee abuse. As the PM told Peter Mansbridge on Jan. 5, 2010, "[The Conservatives] have a big difference of opinion with the opposition over whether that's an issue that warrants attention or not."

In June 2011, under the threat of a contempt of Parliament charge, the Conservatives released 4,000 pages of censored documents to a panel of MPs. Among them were internal reports from approximately 2006 that seemed to confirm Canadian diplomats were at least suspicious of Afghan security forces.

Nevertheless, the review panel said there was still no definitive proof that Canadian officials knew the units to whom they transferred prisoners were complicit in torture.

There are still thousands of documents that may contain information on torture which the government has yet to release in an uncensored form. The officials that Colvin named in his affidavit continue to fight his claims. Behind the screen of prorogues, denials and redacted files, the truth is waiting to be heard.


Peter Goffin is a writer and recent political science graduate living in Toronto. His work has appeared in The Toronto Star, OpenFile, and This magazine.


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