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Cablegate: Canadian Officials Deny Afghan Abuse Claims

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O 272113Z NOV 09
FM AMEMBASSY OTTAWA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 0095
INFO ALL CANADIAN POSTS COLLECTIVE IMMEDIATE

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TAGS: PGOV PREL PHUM MOPS AF CA
SUBJECT: CANADIAN OFFICIALS DENY AFGHAN ABUSE CLAIMS

REF: OTTAWA 890

(SBU) Summary: The Canadian government continues to try to contain
the furor provoked by diplomat Richard Colvin's allegations on
November 18 that Canadian defense personnel in Afghanistan
transferred Afghan prisoners to Afghan authorities in 2006 and 2007
despite misgivings they would be tortured or subject to abuse.
(reftel). Former senior military and civilian officials
responsible for Afghan policy have emphatically refuted Colvin's
allegations. The issue has dominated this week's political and
media coverage, and an early poll suggests that 51% of respondents
believed that detainees were likely abused. The government has
flatly rejected claims of a "cover up" of torture allegations and
is resisting calls for a public inquiry. End summary

FORMER GENERALS FIGHT BACK

2. (U) On November 25, retired Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS)
Gen. Rick Hillier, retired Lt. Col. Michel Gauthier (Commander of
the Canadian Expeditionary Force in 2006 and 2007), and
Major-General David Fraser (the first Canadian commander in
Kandahar) appeared before the House of Commons Special Committee on
Canada's Mission to Afghanistan (AFGH). Hillier said that he was
eager to testify after "hearing myself described as both a liar and
negligent in my duties" in the wake of Richard Colvin's testimony.
All three generals said they were aware of problems in Afghan
prisons, and conceded that Canada's prisoner transfer arrangements
before May 2007 "were not perfect." However, Hillier insisted that
military officials tried to seek a balance between unsubstantiated
reports and specific documented instances of abuse, all the while
engaging a violent insurgency. He rejected Richard Colvin's claims
that likely all detainees faced abuse and torture as "ludicrous"
and lacking in substance. Hillier admitted that he did not read
Colvin's reports in 2006 and 2007, but had reviewed them since, and
the early reports contained " nothing about abuse, nothing about
torture, or anything else that would have caught my attention or
the attention of others." He stated, "There was simply nothing
there."

COLVIN NOT "MUZZLED"

3. (U) On November 26, former Associate Deputy Minister (Under
Secretary-equivalent) of Foreign Affairs for Afghanistan policy
David Mulroney defended his record before the AFGH. Colvin had
alleged that Mulroney specifically had warned him not to put his
concerns over torture in writing. Mulroney flew in from Beijing,
where he is currently Canada's ambassador, despite the fact that
the AFGH had not called him as a witness and that the embassy in
Beijing is in final preparations for a high-profile first visit by
PM Stephen Harper to China from December 2 to 6.

4. (U) Mulroney firmly denied that the Canadian government ignored
Richard Colvin's reports. He confirmed that Canadian officials had
a "very widespread and credible understanding that there were lots
of problems" in the Afghan justice system, prisons, police, "and
throughout the Afghan system." He conceded that the logistical and
military challenges of the new mission in Kandahar meant it took
time for the Canadian government to grapple with the problem of how
to monitor detainees. However, he insisted that the Canadian
government had no specific evidence of torture, and had moved to
address concerns in the May 2007 revised transfer arrangement. He
admitted that Canada did not know the fate of detainees before May
2007. Mulroney dismissed as "speculation" Colvin's claim that all
detainees transferred by Canadian Forces were likely tortured. He
denied that he had attempted to suppress Colvin's reports,
insisting that "the view that I muzzled him or any other official
is wrong."

5. (U) Mulroney said that he did not recall briefing PM Harper on
the detainee issue when he served as Harper's Foreign Policy
Advisor in 2006. He confirmed that when he moved to the Foreign
Affairs Department in 2007 as the senior coordinator for the
Afghanistan mission, he briefed then-Foreign Affairs Minister Peter
MacKay (now Defense Minister) on the issue. Separately, Richard
Colvin confirmed on November 25 that he had emailed copies of his
reports alleging abuse of Afghan detainees through secure channels

to MacKay's office on at least two occasions in May and June 2006.


LET THE AFGH DO ITS WORK

6. (U) The opposition parties on the AFGH have demanded access to
all government documents relevant to the possible torture of Afghan
detainees, including Colvin's reports. On November 24, PM Harper
and Defence Minister MacKay pledged to provide "all
legally-available" documents to the AFGH, although MacKay would not
say when they would be released. They will first have to be vetted
to comply with disclosure rules under the Canada Evidence Act, the
National Defence Act, and for national security information. MacKay
confirmed that the papers would include documents generated by the
previous Liberal government. The opposition parties, together with
Amnesty International Canada, insist that the only way to clear up
the contradictions in the two versions of the story is for the
government to call a public inquiry. However, the government
spokesperson said Prime Minister Harper favors allowing the AFGH to
complete its work.

6. (U) The detainee issue has consumed the daily parliamentary
Question Period, but both PM Harper and Liberal leader Michael
Ignatieff have largely absented themselves from the debate. Harper
skipped Question Period on November 23 -- his first day back after
a trip to Singapore (APEC) and India -- to accept a lacrosse jersey
from Canada's National Men's Field Lacrosse Team. Ignatieff' did
not appear in Question Period until November 23, leaving foreign
affairs critic Bob Rae to take the lead.

PUBLIC TRACTION?

7. (U) There are no polls so far to gauge whether the Colvin
allegations have eroded Conservative support. However, a
Harris-Decima poll released November 25 (after Colvin's testimony,
but before the generals and David Mulroney contradicted him)
suggested that 51% of respondents believed Colvin's statements that
prisoners handed over by Canadian soldiers to Afghan authorities
were likely abused and that the government knew of the problem.
Twenty-five percent believed the government's assertion that the
claims were flimsy. The Conservatives' tone has shifted away from
attacking Colvin's personal credibility to steps it has taken to
address concerns. On November 23, Foreign Affairs Minister
Lawrence Cannon said that Colvin had the right to make his
allegations public, referencing whistleblower legislation the
Conservatives had themselves put in place: "Mr. Colvin has
exercised his prerogative in that regard and, in this case, his
allegations are not proven. The parliamentary committee [AFGH] is
working, so we'll wait until the parliamentary committee has
completed its findings." The Canadian government issued a
statement on November 23 confirming it had temporarily halted the
transfer of detainees to Afghan prisons three times in 2009 due to
concerns of maltreatment and hindered Canadian access to
facilities.

COMMENT

8. (SBU) Two conflicting versions of the detainee issue are now in
the public domain, both as yet unsubstantiated by documentary
evidence. The government has thus far successfully deflected calls
for a public inquiry, and a scheduled parliamentary recess from
December 11 to January 25 will likely slow political momentum
toward a broader investigation. The government's proposed release
of documentary evidence relating to the former Liberal government's
handling of the detainee issue is also likely to temper the
official opposition's ability to torque this issue.
JACOBSON

© Scoop Media

 
 
 
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