OTTAWA — The federal government’s senior adviser on Afghanistan says he encouraged diplomatic officials to report their insights and observations “freely and honestly,” as long as they were accurate and objective.
David Mulroney has written to the chairman of a Commons committee investigating allegations of prisoner abuse in Afghanistan asking for the opportunity to answer claims that officials tried to quash reports.
Mulroney’s letter comes amid a political firestorm created by former diplomat Richard Colvin, who last week alleged that all Canadian-captured prisoners were abused early in the Afghan mission.
Colvin said he was told by his superiors to stop filing written reports on the matter.
The Conservative government has described Colvin’s allegations as hearsay, unsubstantiated and “simply not credible.”
In the Commons on Monday, Defence Minister Peter MacKay said prisoner transfers have been suspended three times over access to prisons. He said these were operational decisions made by military authorities.
“Most recently the reason that the transfers stopped was that the Afghan officials were not living up to . . . expectations,” MacKay said during question period.
He told Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff that the government acted as soon as “credible allegations came to our attention.”
“With respect to the pause in operations of transfers made on the ground in Afghanistan, it was because we could no longer have unfettered, unannounced visits to Afghan prisons. When Afghans are not living up to their obligations, we pause transfers. When they start to allow that access again, the transfers then began again.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper did not attend question period on Monday, instead choosing to attend a photo opportunity where he accepted a jersey from the national lacrosse team.
Mulroney wrote from Beijing, where he is currently serving as ambassador to China, that “very serious” allegations were made at last week’s committee hearing.
“Some touched directly upon my work, that of my colleagues and of the government of Canada. I would welcome the opportunity to address these allegations and set the record straight.”
Mulroney says in his letter to Conservative MP Rick Casson, chairman of the special committee on the Afghan mission, that Canada is at the forefront of detainee monitoring and always recognized that “the human rights situation in Afghanistan was cause for concern.”
Mulroney backs the work of Canadian civilian and military officials “to put in place a very robust system to assist Afghanistan in meeting its . . . commitments for the humane treatment of detainees.”
“I can also assure the committee that I encouraged officials to report freely and honestly, while expecting them to meet the highest standards of accuracy, objectivity and professionalism,” he said.
Colvin told the committee last Wednesday that prisoners were turned over to Afghanistan’s notorious intelligence service by the Canadian military in 2006-07 despite warnings they would be tortured. He also suggested Ottawa may have tried to cover up what was happening.
That Afghanistan’s intelligence service was apparently engaged in torture was already widely known among senior officials in Ottawa thanks to written warnings by Colvin, Canada’s No. 2 diplomat in Kabul at the time.
Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said Monday that Colvin exercised his prerogative as a whistleblower in making the allegations.
But Cannon, who was in Kabul last week, stuck to the Conservative government line that the allegations have not been proven.
Nevertheless, he and MacKay said a new transfer protocol is in place and the government is “pleased” with the way it is working.
“Our government put in very tough regulations enabling the employees of the government through our whistleblower legislation to be able to come forward and make their comments known,” Cannon said.
“Mr. Colvin has exercised his prerogative in that regard and, in this case, his allegations are not proven.”
“The Parliamentary committee is working, so we’ll wait until the Parliamentary committee has completed its findings.”
Meanwhile New Democrat MPs submitted a motion at the Afghanistan special committee to demand all government documents relevant to the torture of Afghan detainees, including Colvin’s reports.
“The government is hiding the truth, and making a mockery of this committee, by refusing to release the documents it has in its possession,” said the NDP Foreign Affairs critic, Paul Dewar.
“Conservatives have quashed access to information on this file since Day 1. The committee has clear powers to shed light on these documents and we fully intend to exercise our right to know the facts.”
Liberals have also demanded the documents be released.
An Afghan agency, at one time entrusted to monitor Canadian-captured insurgents in Kandahar, says it has documented nearly 400 cases of torture across the war-ravaged country.
In its latest report, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission said it uncovered 47 cases of abuse in Kandahar, which it ranked third in the country.
“Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment are common in the majority of law enforcement institutions, and at least 98.5 per cent of interviewed victims have been tortured,” said the commission’s April 2009 study.
The independent study, which tracked abuse claims between 2001 and early 2008, found the vast majority — 243 — were levelled in 2006 and 2007.
That is the time frame when Colvin was in Afghanistan and warning the federal government about torture.