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Calls mount for full public inquiry into detainee abuse

Lieutenant-Colonel Douglas Boot testifies at the Military Police Complaints Commission hearing on the treatment of Afghan detainees in Ottawa on April 15, 2010.

Pawel Dwulit/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Pressure is building on the Harper government to open a public inquiry into the handover of Afghan detainees following extraordinary accusations before a Commons committee that Canadian soldiers deliberately transferred prisoners to torture.

This came in a week when diplomat Richard Colvin offered a military-police inquiry more testimony to support allegations that Canada ignored warnings of abuse, a former interpreter said he saw detainees knowingly handed over to torture, and the country's top soldier acknowledged "grave accusations" required investigation.

Opposition parties renewed their calls for an inquiry with greater intensity. They said it should not be left to the military to investigate itself on accusations, including the disturbing claim by former interpreter Ahmadshah Malgarai that Canadian troops mistakenly shot an unarmed Afghan teen in the back of the head and tried to cover up this "murder." The opposition said the Military Police Complaints Commission is an inadequate vehicle to probe transfer-to-abuse allegations because it lacks clearance to read records censored in the name of national security.

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The shooting charge is particularly troublesome because it echoes the 1990s Somalia affair, where a master corporal beat a Somali teen to death and the Canadian military hid the evidence. That incident cut closer for the Forces than the current detainee controversy, because now the accusation is that prisoners were transferred to abuse by others - in this case Afghanistan's notorious intelligence service.

The painful Somalia scandal - which haunted the military for years - influenced how Canada handled prisoners in Afghanistan, the Military Police Complaints Commission heard on Thursday. Canada has been determined not to act as a long-term jailer of suspects but whisk them to Afghan interrogators as soon as possible.

Preventing Afghan torture and probing for abuse weren't considered part of the job, a senior military police officer testified. Soldiers concentrated on ensuring detainees were free from abuse during their brief stay in Canadian custody rather than monitoring what happened to them after transfer.

"My job was not to worry about Afghanistan. My job was to worry about [Canadian]soldiers," said Lieutenant-Colonel Douglas Boot, a senior military police officer. "That was my focus. And, once again, Somalia was the overarching thing. I was worried about how … the Canadian Forces handled detainees while they were in our custody."

Lt.-Col. Boot called Somalia a "Damocles sword" that hung over the military even as reports of alleged abuse of detainees by Afghans surfaced in 2007.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay rejected the call for an inquiry and bristled at what he saw as a sullying of the Forces' reputation. "Stop disparaging their name, their work, stop making allegations, insinuating they are war criminals," he said.

Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae said the Tories can't deflect troubling charges. "All that bluster doesn't get us away from the fact there are issues that need to be answered," he said.

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Separately, NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said he'd obtained a confidential document that appears to be a late October, 2007, Canadian Forces detainee transfer report where the military shipped prisoners to Afghans to wring information from them.

He would not release the document for fear of breaching national security, but reported that it says: "It is [believed]that all the detainees were deceptive and they have a better knowledge on TB [Taliban]activity in their area. Based on the above, it is recommended that [the prisoners]be transferred to the NDS for further questioning."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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