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Vetting of Afghan detainee files left unfinished, panel says

Frank Iacobucci, former Supreme Court justice.

The retired Supreme Court justices behind this week's Afghan-detainee document dump say their work of vetting the files for public disclosure was unfinished when they were called off by the government.

"We understand that no further work is now expected," Claire L'Heureux-Dubé and Frank Iacobucci wrote in a June 15 letter to Justice Minister Rob Nicholson. With that, the judges handed over what they called "the results completed by the [judicial]panel to date" and also the "the results of the panel's review of an initial set of documents."

These remarks contradict the Conservative government's claim that the 4,000 pages of detainee documents released this week amount to the last, comprehensive word on the long-simmering controversy.

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Critics of the government – including the Official Opposition NDP – say the disclosures to date raise more questions than answers. And they want to know what was held back. "There is information here that cries out for a public inquiry," NDP defence critic Jack Harris said.

The Conservatives are brushing off such demands. "I think Canadians have a clear picture that our men and women in uniform fully accepted all our international obligations and have done a heck of a good job representing this country," Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said.

Parliament has been wrestling for years with the question of whether prisoners of war were tortured in Afghan jails after first being handed over to local security forces by Canadian soldiers.

The Conservative government's claims of national-security secrecy vaulted the Afghan-detainee issue into a full-fledged political crisis. Opposition outcries led the Tories to shutter Parliament last year before forging the political compromise that ultimately led to this week's disclosures.

The procedure – agreed to by all parliamentary parties save for the NDP, which boycotted it – was to delay public release of documents until a trio of retired senior judges filtered them with behind-the-scenes input from a select group of MPs.

The process hit several road bumps. In March, one of the three veteran judges, Donald Brenner, died. Then in April, Parliament dissolved after the Conservatives were found to be in contempt of the legislature for excessive secrecy on other issues.

Parliament's dissolution meant that the judges no longer had any committee of MPs to turn to for input. Post-election, the judges were looking to discuss their findings with a renewed committee of MPs, but no such committee was formed. "We were advised by the government that it is unlikely that the [committee]will be renewed," the judges wrote in their June 15 letter.

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So they handed over what they had done and left some work dangling – including documents over which the government had claimed absolute secrecy. "We did not undertake a review of the government's claims of cabinet confidence since we received confirmation of these claims only before Parliament was dissolved," the judges wrote. "Nor did we complete our review of all of the government's claims of solicitor-client privilege."

Critics says such documents would go to the heart of the controversy.

"What did ministers know? What legal advice did the government have? It was all taken off the table," said Amir Attaran, an Ottawa lawyer who has been agitating for disclosure. "I call it a whitewash."

This week's dump of 4,000 documents represents only about 10 per cent of the estimated 40,000 pages on the Afghan-detainee issue held by the Canadian government. Many of the documents that were released remain partly censored.

The files that were released do not yield any evidence that Canada has specific knowledge of any Canadian Forces-captured detainee being tortured by Afghan security forces. They do show that diplomats and soldiers often fretted that their files would contradict the government's rosy public messaging on Afghanistan.

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About the Authors
National security reporter

Focusing on Canadian matters during the past decade, Colin Freeze has reported extensively on the interplay between government, police, spy services, and the judiciary. Colin has twice been to Afghanistan to be embedded with the Canadian military. More

Parliamentary reporter

Daniel Leblanc studied political science at the University of Ottawa and journalism at Carleton University. He became a full-time reporter in 1998, first at the Ottawa Citizen and then in the Ottawa bureau of The Globe and Mail. More

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