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DND ordered Canadian Military Police to withhold information on detainees

By Tim Naumetz      

The September 2006 email from Richard Colvin was sent after a series of major battles between Canadian troops and Taliban insurgents.

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Canadian Forces headquarters ordered Canadian Military Police in Kandahar to withhold information about detainees from the allied International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, an email among the 2,600 documents the government tabled in Parliament says.

The September 2006 email from diplomat Richard Colvin to the Canadian Embassy in Kabul and a string of recipients in every branch involved in the Canadian mission says an official with the International Security Assistance Force, which oversees troops from Canada, the U.S. and 24 other NATO countries battling the Taliban, raised concern about detainees.

Mr. Colvin sent the email after a series of major battles between Canadian troops and Taliban insurgents in Kandahar. More than a dozen Canadian soldiers were killed in the fighting.

Other documents that have been released or leaked in the controversy over allegations detainees Canadians transferred to Afghan police may have been tortured revealed that Canadians had also been ordered to detain prisoners for no longer than 96 hours, with even shorter targets for their release to the Afghans.

The government has refused to disclose publicly since the controversy began how many detainees Canadian soldiers transferred to Afghan authorities, and the email indicates the policy of secrecy over the transfers began soon after Canadian troops engaged the Taliban in 2006 late-summer battles.

Mr. Colvin has testified at a special Commons committee that senior Canadian officials attempted to suppress his warnings of possible torture when he was a political affairs officer with the Foreign Affairs Department in 2006. He says in the email that the ISAF official, whose named is redacted with black ink, had told him at least a month earlier that Canadian Forces were “refusing” to provide basic information about detainees, including their number.

“According to [redacted] the situation has not/not improved,” the email says. “The Canadian [Military Police] Provost Marshal in Kandahar has told ISAF that he would be pleased to provide the information but that he has received explicit instructions from NDHQ not/not to do so. [Redacted] said this is very frustrating as ISAF has responsibilities on detainees that it is obliged to discharge.”

The email is equally important on another ground because the Military Police complaint it contains about orders to stay quiet over detainee information was redacted from another version of the same email that the government released last November. That was when the special Commons Committee on Afghanistan began hearing Colvin and other witnesses about Canadian actions during the war and allegations of torture.

“Here, we now see what they blacked out,” says Paul Champ, a lawyer acting for Amnesty International in Federal Court and Military Police Complaints Commission hearings on the fate of detainees transferred to Afghan secret police and the Afghan state police force.

Mr. Champ noted another email that has been discovered in the mountain of documents the government tabled in the Commons has revealed that Canadian Defence headquarters in Ottawa year later was not passing information on to Canadian commanders in Kandahar about the monitoring reports of detainees the Canadians had transferred to Afghans. That kind of information was crucial for the Canadian troops in Kandahar, who had a responsibility to ensure the safety of their detainees under the Geneva Convention.

“The approach from Ottawa seems the same here,” Mr. Champ told The Hill Times. “Someone in Ottawa [was] very cautious or careful where information about detainees goes, including other government departments or other agencies like our allies, like ISAF.”

MPs said any order to muzzle information about detainees would have come from the top of the military command chain, perhaps Gen. Rick Hillier, then the chief of defence staff, or possibly even then defence minister and Conservative Whip Gordon O’Connor (Carleton-Mississippi Mills, Ont.).

Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh (Vancouver South, B.C.) said the two emails indicated Canadian commanders in Kandahar were aware they were not getting enough information to ensure that they were not sending detainees to a risk of torture, which itself is illegal under the Geneva Convention as well as Canadian law.

“There’s no question that in September 2006 and in November 2007, the Canadian Forces were worried that they were not meeting the legal test for prevention of torture, and that’s why the transfers halted in 2007,” Mr. Dosanjh told The Hill Times.

“In fact, the people upstairs in leadership, either in politics or amongst the generals, were worried that we might be exposing our forces to criminal sanctions, and I guess their solution was not to do anything about it but to actually not give them (the troops) information, so they operated in the darkness,” said Mr. Dosanjh. “That’s absolutely irresponsible.”

Dan Dugas, communications director for Defence Minister Peter MacKay (Central Nova, N.S.), did not comment on the email. He referred questions to the communications director for Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon (Pontiac, Que.), saying the email was a Foreign Affairs document. Mr. Cannon’s official, Catherine Loubier, did not provide a response.

Mr. Dugas cited earlier statements from Canadian Forces generals who testified that “the CF acted where there was credible evidence,” but he acknowledged no one had earlier asked the generals or the government about the 2006 email.

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