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Tension builds at detainee hearings over 'offensive' responses

A man Afghan authorities suspect of insurgency-related activities is interrogated during a joint Canadian-Afghan army patrol in the Panjwaii District of Kandahar province on July 2, 2009.

COLIN PERKEL/The Canadian Press

Relatively mild-mannered hearings probing Ottawa's transfers of Afghan prisoners have started to seem more like a showdown after the chair of the civilian-led inquiry rebuked the federal government's lawyer for remarks "offensive" to the public.

A conflict is building over access to federal records that threatens to derail these hearings.

Sparks flew Tuesday after Department of Justice lawyer Alain Préfontaine challenged the Military Police Complaints Commission's right to obtain certain government documents on detainee transfers - and then refused to set a date for handing over others.

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"That is not something I am at liberty to discuss with you," Mr. Préfontaine said after he was asked when Ottawa would be ready to make records available to the commission, which was created after the 1993 Somalia torture scandal to prevent future military cover-ups.

Glenn Stannard, a former Windsor, Ont., police chief serving as acting chair of the commission, was dumbfounded. The commission has waited six months to get copies of some federal records on prisoners transferred to Afghan's notorious intelligence service.

"The government of Canada can't tell us how long it's going to take to get the documents?" Mr. Stannard asked.

The Justice Department lawyer's reply only made things worse.

"The documents will be given to your counsel when they are good and ready," Mr. Préfontaine told the complaints commission.

The tone of his remarks astonished Mr. Stannard.

"I find that to be close to offensive, not only to this panel but also to the public," Mr. Stannard said.

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Mr. Préfontaine later apologized for his comments.

The commission's inquiry into detainees is separate from the far more raucous Commons hearings probing the subject on Parliament Hill.

Although no opposition MPs are at the relatively staid commission hearings to stir the pot, tension has been building for months between the watchdog and Ottawa.

The document delay is only the latest roadblock the federal government has put in the way of the commission as it tries to investigate allegations that Canadians aided and abetted torture by knowingly handing over prisoners to abuse at the hands of Afghan officials. Ottawa has taken the commission to court to restrict its mandate on detainees - to what military police knew or could have known - and dragged its feet on releasing documents.

The Geneva Conventions make it a war crime to knowingly transfer prisoners to torture.

The complaints commission has been waiting since October for Ottawa to release up to 4,000 pages of records it says are relevant to the inquiry. It's also asked the federal government to release reports on eight prisoners who alleged in 2008 they were abused after being transferred from Canadian hands.

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Mr. Préfontaine said censors must review documents to ensure they are scrubbed of information that could breach national security - and a backlog of work has built up. He said numerous requests from the commission are making life difficult for government record keepers.

When Mr. Stannard asked for the name of someone in government who could come before the panel and give a date for the release of documents, Mr. Préfontaine replied: "I do not perceive that it's my obligation to answer that question."

The Justice lawyer later said he would try to provide more answers Wednesday.

The holdup in releasing documents could end up derailing commission hearings.

"We don't know whether it's going to stop us or not," commission lawyer Nigel Marshman told reporters. "That remains to be seen."

Lead commission counsel Ron Lunau said he's still hopeful delays can be avoided.

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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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