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At last facing torture furor, Stephen Harper goes on the offensive

Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during Question Period in the House of Common on Tuesday, November 24, 2009.


Stephen Harper couldn't find a photo op or a speech to go to today so he ended up in Question Period, dealing for his first time with the controversy around allegations of torture of Afghan detainees.

The Prime Minister had been able to avoid the daily session - he was travelling last week and met with lacrosse players yesterday - since the explosive testimony of senior diplomat Richard Colvin in which he suggested that torture of Afghan prisoners was routine.

Today, however, Mr. Harper tackled the issue, batting away criticism that officials failed to act from Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff and dismissing NDP Leader Jack Layton's request for a public inquiry. He also refused to admit, despite prodding from Mr. Layton, that torture of the prisoners occurred.

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Instead, he attacked Mr. Layton and the other opposition leaders over speculation they will not allow David Mulroney, the Canadian Ambassador to China, to testify before the all-party Commons committee investigating the torture issue.

Indeed, the Tories have changed their focus from last week's strategy of attacking Mr. Colvin's credibility to attacking the opposition for trying to "muzzle" witnesses.

Mr. Mulroney was the Prime Minister's point man on Afghanistan at the time of the torture allegations. He was singled out by Mr. Colvin as a senior government official who did not want him to speak about the torture of prisoners.

Mr. Mulroney is returning to Canada in hopes of testifying before the committee on Thursday; the committee is dominated by opposition MPs, so they can control who appears and who does not.

"Once again if the NDP and the other opposition parties are at all serious about getting to the truth, they will actually hear from those who want to testify before the parliamentary committee," Mr. Harper said. "There are a number. Let them be heard. What is the opposition afraid of, other than the truth?"

Defence Minister Peter MacKay also turned on the opposition, accusing them of trying to damage Mr. Mulroney's character by painting him as a Tory partisan and not allowing him to testify. (The opposition denies that accusation.)

"It is the responsibility of the opposition and in fact the responsibility of the committee to hear from witnesses who have relevant information to place before the committee," Mr. MacKay said, "particularly when they have been invited to come and testify, when they have indicated their willingness to come and testify and when their name has in fact been impugned."

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He characterized, in vivid language, the opposition's strategy as hypocritical: "The hot breath of the member opposite is dripping with hypocrisy in suggesting they won't let this member testify."

Opposition MPs are reluctant to allow Mr. Mulroney's testimony before seeing a number of documents, including cabinet committee meetings, Mr. Colvin's memos and the memos in response.

After Question Period, Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae said it was unfair how the opposition is being treated with regard the documents: "We're kind of being asked to work in the dark."

His NDP counterpart Paul Dewar says he will put forward a motion at the committee allowing Mr. Mulroney to testify if the government provides the documents they want.

"The government is trying to do damage control by having Mr. Mulroney be the focus," Mr. Dewar said in a scrum with reporters. "What we need to have is the documents and for the government to stop covering up and denying things."

The committee meets every Wednesday and is to hear from three senior military leaders tomorrow, including former chief of defence staff Rick Hillier.

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(Photo: Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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