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Opposition parties threaten Tories over Afghan detainee documents

The Conservative government released 2,600 pages of redacted Afghan detainee documents in March.

Reuters

The spectre of a possible election-triggering showdown over Afghan detainee documents is looming over Parliament once again.

Two of the three opposition parties are threatening to bring a contempt of Parliament motion against the Conservative government if it doesn't finalize an agreement on disclosure of the sensitive material by next week.

The government and opposition parties struck an agreement in principle several weeks ago and set May 31 as a deadline for putting the details down in writing.

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That deadline has now passed without a written agreement and opposition parties are growing frustrated with the Tories' apparent lack of urgency.

Ministers on the government's negotiating team claimed they were too busy to meet Wednesday or Thursday and no meetings are scheduled for Friday.

Bloc Quebecois House Leader Pierre Paquette says the time has come for opposition parties to set a deadline and proceed with a contempt of Parliament motion if the government fails to meet it.

NDP justice critic Joe Comartin agrees, however Liberal House Leader Ralph Goodale is urging all sides to take a deep breath and concentrate on finalizing the deal.

Late Thursday, the government said it has offered to meet with opposition negotiators on Friday.

The documents relate to allegations that prisoners were routinely tortured after being turned over to Afghan authorities by Canadian soldiers.

Mr. Paquette said he thinks the government is deliberately spinning out talks until June 23, when Parliament is scheduled to rise for a 12-week summer break.

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"I think maybe next week we have to say to the government we have now maybe a few days to find a solution," he said.

If a final agreement can't be reached by the end of the week, Mr. Paquette said: "We go in the House and say to the Speaker we are not able to work because the government has bad will on this question and maybe table a motion saying the government don't respect the House."

He stressed that's not his first choice but added: "It's clear, we will not wait until next fall. We have to get an agreement before we leave for the summer."

Mr. Comartin said New Democrats are "dismayed" by the government's foot-dragging and agreed with Mr. Paquette that "we're going to have to look at other alternatives" if there is no resolution by the end of next week at the latest.

He noted that even after finalizing a written agreement, the parties will still need time to choose the MPs who'll be authorized to sift through up to 40,000 pages of documents and the three eminent jurists who are supposed to determine how to publicly disclose relevant information without jeopardizing national security.

He wants all that done before the break so that the work of sifting through documents can take place over the summer, which he said is "realistically, the only time to do it."

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If no resolution is found before the summer break, Mr. Comartin said opposition parties will not be able to do anything - including complaining to Commons Speaker Peter Milliken, who has upheld their right to see the uncensored documents - until Parliament resumes in late September.

Indeed, should the government force a fall election, it's possible opposition parties would never see the documents at all.

"That's certainly the concern," Mr. Comartin said.

A spokeswoman for Justice Minister Rob Nicholson, the lead government negotiator, said negotiations continue "in a spirit of co-operation" and that all parties have agreed to extend talks for "a few more days."

Mr. Goodale said he shares frustration over the lack of formal meetings but he said significant progress has been made "by keeping the lines of communication open" - apparently referring to informal discussions that have been taking place.

"I too would like a formal meeting called as soon as possible but I think we all need to take a breath and concentrate on finalizing this deal."



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