Canada was faulted by military allies in Afghanistan over the secretive manner with which it handled detainees in the early months of its Kandahar mission, The Globe and Mail has learned.
Reports from the Canadian embassy in Kabul in September of 2006 reveal there was unease within the military alliance about how Canada was handling suspects it rounded up and transferred to Afghanistan's notorious intelligence service.
One of the complainants was British Colonel Dudley Giles, a senior military police officer with NATO's International Security Assistance Force the 40-plus nation coalition fighting insurgents in Afghanistan. In August of 2006 he brought his concerns to the Canadian embassy in Kabul, saying Canada was stonewalling on providing basic information on the Afghans it was capturing.
"Col. Giles made what can only be described as strong criticisms of the Canadian approach on detainee issues," Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin wrote in a Sept. 28, 2006, memo that was sent to more than 30 Canadian government e-mail addresses - most of them in the Department of Foreign Affairs.
"There are 'issues of trust and openness,' " Mr. Colvin quoted Col. Giles as saying. "According to Giles, when he contacts Canadian [officials]in Kandahar, 'their first response to requests is 'Why do you want to know?' followed by 'We know what you want, but we won't give it to you.' " The memos add to the weight of concerns already raised by Mr. Colvin, the International Committee of the Red Cross and human-rights groups about Canada's practices in transferring prisoners to Afghan authorities.
Diplomatic reports from the same period show that Mr. Colvin wasn't the only foreign service officer relaying criticisms about detainee transfers to Ottawa. A Sept. 11, 2006, memo from a Canadian NATO staffer alerted the government to the fact that the ICRC had singled out Canada's practice of handing over prisoners to the Afghans on the battlefield, a practice it feared could result in human-rights monitors losing track of detainees.
Mr. Colvin is the foreign service officer who reignited the long-simmering controversy about prisoners transferred by Canadian soldiers to Afghan control. In mid-November, he testified that all such prisoners likely faced torture. Mr. Colvin alleged the Afghans typically torture prisoners within the first few days of obtaining them, and said his 2006 warnings on the issue were ignored and later suppressed.
Back then, however, Canada wasn't providing details even to its allies on what happened to the suspects it picked up. That is despite the fact that ISAF, the command structure for the war in Afghanistan, imposes legal and operational requirements aimed at ensuring detainees are looked after, transferred and held in accordance with international law.
Canada's refusal to co-operate with its military allies on the prisoner issue originated at the top of the Canadian defence establishment, according to a Sept. 19, 2006, memo from Mr. Colvin. The diplomat recounted for Ottawa how ISAF political adviser Paul Wyatt told the Canadian embassy that Canada's senior military-police officer in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar fingered his Ottawa superiors as the obstructionists.
"The Canadian provost marshal in Kandahar has told ISAF that he would be pleased to provide the information but that he has received explicit instructions from National Defence Headquarters ... not to do so," Mr. Colvin's memo says.
At the same time, NATO was getting an earful from the Red Cross over Canada's handover policy. "One practice that was particularly criticized was that of the turning over of detainees by international forces directly to Afghan security forces when on joint patrol, as this could result in a circumventing of the requirement to notify the ICRC," Anne Burgess, a Canadian official stationed at NATO, wrote in a Sept. 11, 2006, e-mail distributed widely throughout Foreign Affairs. "Apparently Canadian forces were particularly identified with this practice."
That was long before The Globe and Mail published harrowing accounts of torture and abuse. Those stories, the government has since claimed, were its first inkling that anything was amiss with its transfer policy.
Yet the Burgess e-mail in the summer of 2006 matched the battlefield reality. On at least one occasion that summer, Canadian soldiers intervened to rescue a detainee who had been beaten in the face with shoes by Afghan police after being handed over.
Government ministers and Canada's Chief of the Defence Staff, General Walter Natynczyk, initially denied The Globe and Mail's detailed account of that June, 2006, incident and claimed the detainee had never been transferred by Canada. However, Gen. Natynczyk subsequently acknowledged that the newspaper's version was accurate, saying he had been misinformed and had ordered an inquiry.
"Canadians have had enough stalling and stonewalling from this government," Liberal defence critic Ujjal Dosanjh said yesterday. "We're calling on [Defence Minister Peter]MacKay to be as open and honourable as Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Walter Natynczyk."
Opposition MPs are demanding the government release thousands of pages of heavily redacted documents detailing what was known about the risk that prisoners transferred to Afghan control would be tortured. Turning over a prisoner captured in battle to those who abuse or torture is a war crime under the Geneva Conventions, and rights groups claim Ottawa was turning a blind eye to widely known and detailed evidence that torture was endemic in Afghan prisons.