OTTAWA — A Canadian general is defending dealing with Afghanistan’s notorious intelligence service, describing it as a “highly thought of organization,” despite widespread reports of torture.
Maj.-Gen. Mike Ward made the comment Thursday at a Military Police Complaints Commission hearing into the transfer of Afghan detainees.
The National Directorate of Security (NDS) has been accused of torture by numerous human rights groups and was even singled out in 2007 by the United Nations Commissioner on Human Rights. Whether the Canadian army should have transferred prisoners to the care of the NDS is at the centre of an inquiry by the commission.
Ward, who served as deputy commander of Canada’s overseas command, challenged the widespread notion that torture is rampant in Afghan jails.
He said human rights reports and warnings over the years, including from the Foreign Affairs Department and the U.S. State Department, create a bad atmosphere.
“I’ve read a lot of those reports and just spent a year reading more and more of those reports,” he testified. “They don’t help very much because you create an expectation of a climate of torture or terror in Afghan prisons that is actually not accurate.
“Just as everything is not hunky-dory, these are not torture chambers per se and as I think we’ve found out subsequently.”
Ward also disputed the widely held notion that prisoners handed over by Canadians in early in the mission were abused.
“I don’t think there was any evidence to suggest they were (being tortured). What we’ve heard here is there was lots of speculation they might have been.”
In November 2007, a Canadian diplomat uncovered what the federal government considered to be its only verified case of torture.
A prisoner who’d been beaten with a rubber hose and subjected to electric shocks was interviewed and his injuries documented.
When Canada started transferring captured Taliban fighters in early 2006, it faced wrecked government institutions in Afghanistan and the NDS was, at the time, the most professional of the security forces.
“It is probably the best Afghan national security organization that’s operating in the country, with the best ability to meet the national security concerns, far better than the Afghan National Police, far better than the Afghan National Army,” Ward said.
“If you had to deal with an agency of government, the NDS was the best step at that point of time.”
His defence of the NDS came following the release of briefing notes from 2009 showing that an NDS officer set off alarm bells in Ottawa after telling Canadian officers that his agency was able to “torture” and “beat” prisoners.
The complaints commission is looking into what Canadian military police knew — or should have known — about possible torture in Afghan institutions. Handing over prisoners to possible abuse violates international law.
Ward described the issue of prisoner treatment as a “conversation killer” within the confines of the headquarters because it was “distraction” from day-to-day concerns and deemed as something that was outside of the military’s control.
The commission inquiry was sparked by a complaint from two human rights groups, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and Amnesty International Canada.
The lawyer for both groups, Paul Champ, said he was startled by Ward’s statement that there were no torture chambers in Afghanistan.
“I’m not sure if he’s got some medieval idea that you’ve got the rack and spikes on the wall and stuff like that,” Champ said.
“I think that fantasy understanding of how torture is carried out in countries today is completely unrealistic. It reflects the lack of expertise in the Canadian military about the realities of torture.”
The public hearing will resume next week.