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Professor blasts back at 'small-minded' PMO

Amir Attaran says Stephen Harper's office is "dishonestly" blurring and misrepresenting him in an internal email to Conservative MPs and supporters.

The email containing a set of talking points was released yesterday. It accuses the University of Ottawa professor of characterizing the Canadian troops as war criminals.

"It is maliciously wrong of the Prime Minister's office to write that I 'accused Canadian troops of war crimes,'" the professor told The Globe in an email today.

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"That Canada has transferred Afghan detainees in actual knowledge of a risk of torture - a war crime - is undeniable, and this is largely because of the investigative work of The Globe's Graeme Smith and Paul Koring," he said.

"To state such a thing is not controversial. Even the Canadian Forces Judge Advocate General, BGen Ken Watkin, told Parliament in November that 'the transfer of detainees to a real risk of torture or ill-treatment is contrary to international humanitarian law, also known as the law of war,'" he said.

Prof. Attaran's outrage stems from talking points sent to Conservative MPs and supporters about his appearance at a Liberal roundtable. "Sadly, Ignatieff and the Liberals have once again demonstrated their disdain for the Canadian Forces by including in their meeting a witness who has accused Canadian troops of war crimes," that Conservative message said.

"Amir Attaran, a former Harvard professor and close personal associate of Michael Ignatieff when they were at Harvard has said: 'Canadians are complicit in torture, and therefore, it is beyond any doubt that Canadians have committed war crimes. The only question is who, and when, and what the details are.'(Global National, November 23, 2009)"

Wrong.

Prof. Attaran says he was never a full professor at Harvard. Although, he says, he "should be grateful for the flattering error," he was at Harvard in various research and teaching posts.

"I utterly fail to understand the PMO's insinuation that there is something wrong or un-Canadian about going abroad to study or to teach," he says. "On the contrary, it is a bonus for Canadian university students (and their parents) when a person leaves a place like Harvard or Yale and comes back home to teach in Canada. For the Prime Minister to beat up on a Canadian for having gone to Harvard shows how small-minded he can be, and how his vision would make Canada more insular and worse place to get an education."

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The Afghan detainee issue is a sensitive one for the Conservatives. The widely-held view among political observers is that the Prime Minister shut down Parliament until after the Olympics to avoid heat he and his government were taking on that file.

The Liberals and NDP, however, have not let the issue die. And neither have the Tories, responding with these sorts of memos.

Says Prof. Attaran: "But stating that a crime has been committed by Canadians is a different matter from making accusations of who the criminals are."

"Logically, these are separate questions, and the PMO's dishonesty lies in blurring the distinction. Note that even in the quotation of mine which the PMO picked, I noted that the 'question is who' the criminals are," he writes.

"In summary: it is undeniable that Canadian war crimes have occurred, but it is unknown exactly who committed the crimes."

(File photo: Bill Grimshaw for The Globe and Mail)

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Update A senior Harper official points out the talking points were distributed by the Conservative Party of Canada, not the Prime Minister's Office.

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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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