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Warnings on detainees were e-mailed to MacKay's office

Defence Minister Peter MacKay speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Monday, November 23, 2009.

Warnings in the spring of 2006 that Red Cross monitors were troubled about the treatment of Canada's Afghan detainees were e-mailed to the office of then-Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay, The Globe and Mail has learned.

The revelation sheds more light on exactly which political offices received diplomat Richard Colvin's early red flags about abuse of Afghan detainees transferred by Canada to local authorities.

Mr. MacKay's office was copied on at least two e-mailed reports - one on May 26, 2006, and one on June 2, 2006, The Globe has learned. They were sent to an e-mail address linked to the acronym "MINA," which stands for "minister's office." The messages were sent to an e-mail inbox that functions as a repository for secure missives from foreign posts. These posts typically require secret or top secret clearance to read: access given to chiefs of staff, senior policy advisers and the bureaucrats who function as liaison between the department and the minister's office.

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Mr. Colvin last week testified that Ottawa ignored and tried to suppress his early warnings that prisoners captured by Canada were abused after they were handed over to Afghanistan's notorious intelligence service in 2006 and 2007.

But key Canadian veterans on the Afghan mission, including retired General Rick Hillier in testimony Wednesday, have rejected Mr. Colvin's charges and said his early reports lacked substance and did not warrant action.

The May and June, 2006, reports did not use the word "torture," an absence that may explain why Mr. Colvin's critics such as Mr. Hillier feel confident in playing them down. But the diplomat, who was posted to Afghanistan for 17 months, made it clear in his reports that he believed that the Red Cross's concerns, however moderately expressed, were serious and required action.

In the May 26 e-mail, Mr. Colvin informed his superiors that the International Committee of the Red Cross - an organization that's supposed to monitor treatment of prisoners in war zones - was angry and frustrated at Ottawa's lack of co-operation in helping them track prisoners transferred to Afghan authorities from the Canadian military.

The e-mail said that the Red Cross had been unhappy about delays of up to two months in receiving notification from Canada about detainees transferred to the Afghanis.

"A lot can happen in two months," Mr. Colvin quotes the Red Cross as saying.

Mr. Colvin testified last week that, for one three-month period in 2006, the Red Cross couldn't even find someone at Canada's southern Afghanistan army headquarters to take its phone calls on concerns about abuse. Driving its concern was the fear that detainees were vulnerable to abuse during the period before human rights monitors learned of their transfer and could monitor them.

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Mr. Colvin's June 2 e-mail amplified the concerns of the Red Cross. The diplomat, trained as a journalist, often used direct quotes from these officials to anchor his reports. He warned Ottawa the Red Cross felt the detainee issue was "increasingly important, increasingly complicated and should be taken more and more into consideration."

"All kinds of things are going on," Mr. Colvin quoted a Red Cross representative as saying. The international agency raised concerns about the treatment of prisoners after Canadian soldiers handed them over because they are held in conditions alternately described as "unsatisfactory" and "unsavoury."

The June 2 e-mail also cites a Red Cross official who warns that "Canada's responsibility does not cease just because they [detainees]had been turned over to Afghan authorities" after capture.

Ottawa appeared taken aback by Mr. Colvin's May 26 email about problems in keeping the Red Cross abreast of detainees.

An e-mail reply sent by Foreign Affairs official Eric Laporte played down the problems in notifying the Red Cross, saying the delay was usually much shorter, such as two to four days.

"We are somewhat surprised at the tone of the report and the assertion that there's been a lack of co-operation from KAF [the Kandahar Airfield base]on this matter," the reply to Mr. Colvin said.

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Dan Dugas, director of communications for Mr. MacKay, who today is defence minister, said he was unable to identify who might have received the Colvin emails in the minister's office in May and June, 2006.

Mr. Dugas said the fact that Mr. Hillier yesterday characterized the two reports as unworthy of action suggests questions over who received them are a "moot" point.

Mr. MacKay has said he never read the Colvin reports but received briefings in 2007 that drew upon some of the diplomat's work. The defence minister said the Harper government has acted to safeguard detainees, including suspending transfers to Afghan authorities, "when we've had credible allegations."

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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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