Cablegate: Canada: Afghan Detainee Controversy Re-Erupts

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1. (SBU) Summary: In testimony to a House of Commons committee
on November 18, a Canadian diplomat claimed to have filed numerous
written reports in 2006 and 2007 from Afghanistan alleging that
"all" Afghans detained by Canadian Forces and transferred to Afghan
authorities likely faced torture or abuse. He alleged that
Canadian officials knew of -- and deliberately failed to act on --
his warnings. Defence Minister MacKay responded that the testimony
was without a "scintilla" of evidence, and claimed that the three
opposition parties were engaged in a "witch hunt." He claimed that
the Conservatives had "inherited" a flawed transfer process, which
the government then fixed, while also investing more than $130
million so far in penal and judicial reform in Afghanistan since
taking office. While seizing much media attention, the
government's claim that there is no hard evidence - and no direct
links between Canadian Forces and torture - should win the day
after another round of short-term political skirmishing.
Ultimately, neither major party wants to campaign on Afghanistan in
the next election, whenever that may be. The present furor is
unlikely to have a long-term or significant impact either on
Canadian policy on Afghanistan or on domestic Canadian politics.
End summary.


2. (U) Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin told the House of Commons
Special Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan (AFGH) on
November 18 that "according to our information, the likelihood is
that all the Afghans we handed over [to Afghan authorities] were
tortured." The AFGH had called Colvin as a witness after he filed
an affidavit in a separate probe by the Military Police Complaints
Commission (MPCC) into allegations that Canadian Forces knew that
prisoners they transferred to Afghan authorities faced a risk of
torture. The probe is the second that the MPCC has launched since
2007 into abuses of Afghan transferees, prompted by human rights
groups that had filed -- and lost -- previous legal challenges to
halt the transfers.

3. (U) Colvin, now at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, had
served a 17 month tour in Afghanistan in 2006 and 2007, beginning
in Kandahar in spring 2006 and then as DCM in Kabul. Colvin
testified that he first began to red flag "serious, imminent, and
alarming" problems with the treatment of detainees in May 2006,
based on "credible sources," as well as his own exchanges with
detainees in Afghan custody. He claimed that he had sent his
reports to the senior ranks of the Canadian military as well as
through diplomatic channels. Colvin asserted that a "wall of
secrecy" quickly surrounded his allegations, noting that "there was
certain information that was seen as too hot potato." He alleged
that Canadian officials (including David Mulroney, then-Associate
Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs for Afghanistan policy and now
Canadian Ambassador to Beijing) had told him to stop putting his
concerns in writing to avoid creating a paper trail. Colvin
claimed that Canada's "complicity in torture" thwarted its military
objectives in Kandahar by alienating the local population, causing
Kandaharis to fear foreigners, thereby strengthening the

4. (U) The government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper had signed
a new prisoner transfer agreement with the Afghan government in May
2007, which provided for follow-up prison visits by Canadian
officials to ensure that detainees were not tortured. Previously,
Conservative ministers had defended the practice of turning over
detainees to Afghan authorities based on an agreement negotiated
with the government of Afghanistan by the previous Liberal
government. Conservative ministers had also argued that the Red
Cross previously monitored the treatment of prisoners in


5. (U) During the House of Commons' Question Period on November
19, the Official Opposition Liberals, quickly backed by the other
two opposition parties, called for a public inquiry into the
allegations. Defence Minister Peter MacKay vigorously discounted
Colvin's testimony, saying there was not a "scintilla of evidence"

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- "no evidence, none, zero" - linking torture to the Afghan
prisoners transferred by the Canadian Forces. He said that
Colvin's testimony was based on "hearsay," including "Taliban
information." He accused the opposition parties of trying to turn
this into a political issue, describing it as a "witch hunt." He
insisted that this government had acted to strengthen a weak
prisoner transfer agreement inherited from the previous Liberal
government, adding that the Liberals had not even instituted this
agreement until a month before leaving office. "We instituted a
more robust system of visitation. We instituted investments to
improve those [prison] conditions. We instituted a more rigorous
process of assisting Afghans with respect to human rights. We
continue to work both with local officials and members in all
departments to improve things." He noted that this government had
since 2006 invested about $132 million to improve judicial and
penal capability in Afghanistan. MacKay dismissed as "outrageous"
one MP's allegation that Canadian officials had been ordered to
hold back reports of detainee abuse under threat of sanctions.

7. (U) In a telephone interview on November 19 from Kabul while
attending President Karzai's inauguration, Foreign Minister
Lawrence Cannon asserted that "Canada has been responsive to the
allegations of abuse and has taken them seriously. When we've had
specific allegations of abuse, we've acted. And we will not
tolerate proven evidence of abuse." He added that "nothing has
been proven here and we've changed the system. We have indeed
cleaned up what was left to us by putting in place a new regime."
FM Cannon also told reporters that he had met privately with
President Karzai, who has "an immense task ahead." FM Cannon also
noted that Karzai in his inauguration speech had made some
"important and positive commitments" to good governance,
merit-based cabinet appointments, and accountability.

8. (U) Prime Minister Stephen Harper, DefMin MacKay and his
predecessor as DefMin Gordon O'Connor have all previously denied
any knowledge of Colvin's reports. Previous Chief of Defence Staff
(CDS) General Rick Hillier has also stated that he did not recall
seeing them.

9. (SBU) Comment: These allegations are only the latest flare-up
in the long-running controversy about treatment -- by Afghan
authorities in Afghan facilities -- of Afghan detainees. The issue
of detainee transfers has long been a convenient political
football, dogging successive governments and hindering positive
messaging on Canada's engagement in Afghanistan. Since the latest
"fix" in 2007, the issue has continued to simmer due to various
legal challenges by human rights groups, as well as the ongoing
probe by the MPCC. However, there are few new points to score,
especially since detainee problems unfolded under the watches of
both Liberal and Conservative governments. The bottom line is that
the Canadian public by and large is not engaged on the issue, and
neither of the two major parties want to escalate Afghanistan as a
future election issue, making it unlikely that the present furor
will have a long-term or significant impact either on Canadian
policy in Afghanistan or on domestic Canadian politics.

© Scoop Media

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