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Conservative boycott shuts down Afghan detainee hearing

Chief of Defence Staff General Walt Natynczyk, right, and General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, take part in a wreath-laying ceremony at the National War Memorial in Ottawa on Tuesday December 15, 2009.

Adrian Wyld

The Harper government has effectively suspended parliamentary hearings on allegations that Afghan detainees were transferred to torture - boycotting attempts by opposition MPs to continue a Commons probe of the matter.

The move ensures for the time being that there are no more hearings to enflame a controversy that's set the government back on its heels and begun to cost it support.

It comes amid speculation the Conservatives are preparing to shut down Parliament itself until after the Olympics.

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The boycott began Tuesday when Conservative MPs skipped a meeting of the Commons committee on Afghanistan that was set up to schedule future hearings and agree upon which witnesses to call. The absence of even a single government MP means the committee can't officially meet and investigate allegations that suspects rounded up by Canadian soldiers were tortured after being handed over to Afghan's notorious intelligence service.

The Tories defended their decision by saying there's no urgency to hold more hearings in the holiday period.

"It's not the time to be having meetings that are implying, intentioned or not, that Canadians are somehow guilty of war crimes," Laurie Hawn, the parliamentary secretary for the Defence Minister, said on CTV's Power Play after the aborted meeting.

He said he's not keen on taking time during the parliamentary break for hearings that he accused opposition parties of seeking "just simply to satisfy their political bloodlust."

The Conservatives refused to say Tuesday when they would agree to resume attending meetings of the Commons committee on Afghanistan. Parliament isn't scheduled to resume sitting until Jan. 25.

The Conservatives have beaten back calls for a broader public inquiry into detainee transfers by saying the matter should instead be handled by the Commons committee that Tory MPs skipped on Tuesday.

NDP Foreign Affairs critic Paul Dewar accused the Tories of disrespecting Parliament.

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"They're cutting and running," Mr. Dewar said. "This little parlour trick is a new tool for them to prevent committees from doing their work - it's evade, evade, evade. Undermine, undermine, undermine."

Tuesday's Tory boycott comes four days after the Harper government defied an extremely rare Commons motion backed by all opposition parties - who outnumber the Conservatives in Parliament - that calls on them to release confidential records on Afghan detainees.

The "order-to-produce" has the power of subpoena and the opposition could find the Tories in contempt of Parliament for ignoring it. The Tories, however, say releasing the records would threaten national security.

Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh said that, by boycotting meetings, the Tories also ensure that no more witnesses can embarrass them at the committee. Witnesses can't be granted parliamentary protection for testifying unless they're appearing before an official committee meeting.

The boycott comes shortly after the departing head of a separate inquiry into detainees fired a salvo at the Tories.

Peter Tinsley, chair of the Military Police Complaints Commission, said Ottawa's refusal to extend his term so he could finish the job contributes to a "chilling effect" on cabinet-appointed watchdogs charged with keeping government accountable.

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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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