Canada kept feared Afghan governor in power despite rep as ‘human-rights abuser’

OTTAWA — A former governor of Kandahar who is accused of personally torturing Afghans might have been removed from office as far back as 2006 if Canadian officials hadn’t defended him, according to diplomatic memos that have never been made public by the Canadian government.

OTTAWA — A former governor of Kandahar who is accused of personally torturing Afghans might have been removed from office as far back as 2006 if Canadian officials hadn’t defended him, according to diplomatic memos that have never been made public by the Canadian government.

The revelation about Asadullah Khalid, who stayed on as governor two years after concerns about his notorious reputation were raised, opens up another embarrassing avenue of inquiry over Afghan prisoner abuse.

The new allegation is contained in a two-year-old end-of-mission report by Richard Colvin, the whistleblower foreign service officer.

Colvin’s disgust that Canada would support a “known human-rights abuser” was palpable and formed the most incendiary paragraphs of the report. References to Khalid were entirely blacked out in the version of the report publicly released to the Military Police Complaints Commission.

But an uncensored version of the report was shown for the first time to The Canadian Press on a confidential basis.

Colvin’s disgust that Canada would support a “known human-rights abuser” was palpable and formed the most incendiary paragraphs of the report. References to Khalid were entirely blacked out in the version of the report publicly released to the Military Police Complaints Commission.

“As far as I know, Canada has never suggested to (President Hamid) Karzai that Asadullah be replaced,” says the memo, dated Oct. 24, 2007.

“In the one meeting where the subject was discussed, in July 2006, it was the president who raised the issue; Canada defended the governor, thereby ensuring his continued tenure.”

The uncensored report sheds further light on Colvin’s Nov. 18, 2009 testimony before a special House of Commons committee, where he stated the governor was considered a “bad actor” on human rights.

It also makes clear the division between the Canadian military, which supported Khalid, and skeptical diplomats, who became increasingly vocal about allegations of corruption, drug-running and prisoner abuse.

Canada ended up withdrawing its support for Khalid in 2008 when former foreign affairs minister Maxime Bernier, in what was widely viewed as a massive diplomatic blunder, publicly declared the governor had to go and that he’d urged Karzai to replace him. Provincial governors in Afghanistan are appointed by the president.

But Colvin’s 2007 memo, which he did not submit to his superiors, lays out in stark terms how the long-standing association had a corrosive effect on Canada’s image in Kandahar. Khalid, Colvin warned, discredited Canada through association.

“The governor is a known human-rights abuser,” censored parts of the memo say.

“He runs at least one private detention facility, at which he personally has tortured detainees. … His record is well known in Kandahar, including among the Canadian press corps.”

In a blistering critique, Colvin wrote that “rather than tackle this governance failure, Canada has systematically avoided it” and that getting serious about cleaning up Kandahar couldn’t happen with Khalid still in place.

The note was written almost a year before Karzai moved Khalid to another job as the official in charge of tribal affairs in Kabul.

The warnings about Khalid – whose brazen decision as governor to display the battered dead body of a revered Taliban leader Mullah Dadullah to local Afghan media, before refusing to return it for a proper burial, triggered a massive bombing campaign in Kandahar city in the spring of 2007 – were heard loud and clear in Ottawa.

Concerns were serious enough to be raised at the highest levels of the federal government, foreign affairs and defence sources said.

A meeting was called in December 2006 in Ottawa to discuss the matter. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s national security adviser attended the session, sources have said.

“There was no policy for dealing with something like this, something sensitive,” one source said. “Nobody quite knew what to do.”

Yet throughout 2007 the warnings kept getting louder.

A Foreign Affairs source said a separate memo sent by Colvin in the winter of 2007 was searing in its criticism and indicated the governor was corrupt, dangerous, self-serving and deeply unpopular with Afghans.

One Afghan government official apparently pleaded with Canadian diplomats and police officers for Khalid’s removal during a meeting in February 2007, said the source, who has seen a document outlining the meeting.

The official made a direct request to Canada to intervene with the president, the source added.

Two months later, a prisoner handed over to Afghan authorities by Canadian Forces alleged Khalid had personally tortured him in a detention facility next to his palace, according to a memo from Colvin’s colleague, Gavin Buchan, on April 25.

The detainee “claimed to have been beaten and electrocuted by the governor himself,” Buchan said in a memo also sent to other government departments, including National Defence and the Afghan task force within the Foreign Affairs Department. It was also flagged to NATO.

By July, Khalid was still in place despite fresh warnings from Colvin based on discussions with another diplomat.

The Canadians were told that Khalid had “lost the support of even pro-government tribal leaders,” says a July 17, 2007, memo also viewed by The Canadian Press.

The diplomat said Khalid “has no genuine interest in governance or security in Kandahar but cares only about his own advancement.”

David Mulroney, who oversaw the Afghan file in the Privy Council Office, said in testimony to the parliamentary special committee on Afghanistan that Canadian officials investigated torture claims against Khalid but uncovered no evidence to prove them.

He acknowledged that claims the governor tortured prisoners were “widespread in Afghanistan.”

Khalid was believed to have been obtaining his victims from among detainees at the infamous National Directorate of Security, the widely feared Afghan secret service, which eventually took custody of those prisoners taken by Afghan or NATO forces, including Canadian soldiers, that were deemed a credible Taliban threat.

The memos even indicate that the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission had confirmed the existence of a private jail, where Khalid took “custody” of five prisoners he used as bargaining chips with the Taliban, who had kidnapped medical workers over his refusal to surrender Dadullah’s corpse.

The federal government asked officials at the Canadian-run provincial reconstruction base in Kandahar to investigate the allegations that Khalid operated a series of torture chambers, including one rumoured to be in basement of the governor’s palace.

“We could not find any evidence that we could bring to the Afghan government about this,” said Mulroney. “We visited his residence, we didn’t see any facility.”

Mulroney did not address the corruption allegations in his comments.

Defence sources said the military heard all of the same allegations about Khalid, but found “all them hard to believe.”

Several sources noted that every powerful figure in Afghanistan faces “wild accusations” of wrongdoing.

Documents obtained previously by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act show Khalid was initially popular with the military because of his anti-Taliban zeal. But as the governor spent more and more time outside of the province, not attending to day-to-day business, Canadian officials became impatient.

“We spoke to people at a very high level in Kabul to express our concerns, but we never had any item that we could specifically point to,” Mulroney said.

Mulroney’s testimony called into question statements given earlier by Maj.-Gen. David Fraser, who was brigadier-general when he was the country’s ground commander in Kandahar in 2006.

The general was asked point blank whether he was aware of any allegations that the governor was involved in prisoner abuse.

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