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Harper government changes tune on Afghan prisoner issue

Peter MacKay speaks with Gordon O'Connor during a cabinet swearing-in ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, August 14, 2007. Mr. MacKay replaced Mr. O'Connor as Defence Minister.

CHRIS WATTIE

The Conservative government now says it was aware of "concerns about the state of prisons" in Afghanistan almost from the day it took office and eventually rewrote a prisoner transfer agreement as those concerns mounted.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay offered a dramatically different Tory narrative on the Afghan torture issue on Friday. This capped a week in which the government went from lampooning as Taliban dupes anyone who alleged prisoner abuse to claiming the government took such reports seriously from the start.

A 2005 prisoner transfer agreement with the Afghan government was eventually renegotiated in May 2007 under intense public scrutiny following explosive media revelations about torture in Afghan prisons.

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Now, under the weight of evidence that many international organizations were sounding the alarm about treatment of Afghan prisoners, Mr. MacKay says his government knew of the problems and began to act shortly after taking office in January 2006.

"The decision to change the transfer arrangement would have been as a result of a lot of sources of information including those from Mr. [David]Mulroney, those from other individuals on the ground, Elissa Goldberg, those who were involved in the actual PRT, those who went to Afghan prisons to observe the situation," the minister said outside the Commons.

"That began almost immediately after we took office. … Obviously there were concerns about the state of prisons."

The detainee issue dominated Parliament this week.

Former chief of defence staff Rick Hillier, retired general Michel Gauthier and Major-General David Fraser appeared at a special committee on the Afghan mission, where they emphatically shot down earlier testimony from diplomat Richard Colvin that the government had received numerous warnings of prisoner abuse in 2006.

Maj.-Gen. Gauthier testified that literally "hundreds" of people in official Ottawa have now seen classified memos and that nothing in them suggested acts of torture were taking place.

Subsequent testimony from Mr. Mulroney, Canada's current ambassador to China who headed the Privy Council's Afghanistan task force, appeared to contradict Maj.-Gen. Gauthier.

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"The fact that there were allegations of mistreatment in Afghan prisons was known to us," Mr. Mulroney told the committee on Thursday.

However, since Canada at the time had no way of tracking any detainees it handed over, Mr. Mulroney was able to testify that "there was no mention specifically of Canadian-transferred prisoners" being abused.

Mr. MacKay further massaged the Conservative message on Friday.

"Obviously there were concerns about the state of prisons," he said. "There were concerns about allegations. There were concerns about information found in reports. There were concerns.

"We acted on those concerns over two and a half years ago."

While the government had previously stated that a specific abuse allegation in the spring of 2007 prompted it to act, Mr. MacKay now suggests it was an evolution in thinking.

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"I can't say that there was a specific moment in time that the decision to change the transfer arrangement crystalized in my mind," he said.

"It was obviously made as a result of recommendations from within the department."

Last week, Mr. Colvin was publicly attacked by Conservative MPs who suggested he was a Taliban dupe for believing and broadcasting claims of prisoner abuse - and testifying he'd relayed those concerns to an unreceptive government.

The ensuing Tory attacks on Mr. Colvin typified their stock response through much of the detainee debate.



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