KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Canada outstripped its NATO allies almost two-to-one in the number of prisoners it turned over to Afghan authorities in the first nine months of last year, figures prepared for the Afghan government show.
The statistics were compiled by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and made available to The Canadian Press. Ottawa does not release them.
More ominously, the commission complained in its latest annual report that it is still frustrated in attempts to check on prisoners handed over to the country’s notorious intelligence service — the National Directorate of Security.
The commission, which relies heavily on Canadian government funding and mentorship, says between January and the end of September 2009, it was notified that 267 suspected insurgents were transferred by Canada, Britain, the Netherlands and Denmark. The United States has its own separate system for dealing with captured Taliban.
Among NATO allies, the Canadian army was way out in front with 163 prisoners. Britain followed with 93 confirmed transfers; the Netherlands 10 and Denmark 1.
Unlike those countries, who make these numbers publicly available, Ottawa refuses to release its figures, citing operational security and the safety of troops as the reason. Before the U.S. surge, the explanation was that giving away the number of captured with so small a Canadian force on the ground would help the Taliban track where their people might be.
The Canadian numbers, however, are available for the asking in this country.
Before it was pushed into monitoring prisoners itself, Ottawa turned to the Afghan human rights commission, but quickly found that the country’s intelligence service wouldn’t allow the agency in. Three years later, the situation remains the same.
“We continue to face that problem with the NDS,” said agency commissioner Nader Nadery in an interview.
“They say it’s security, but we don’t buy that. We are a national institution, as they are and we have a right to examine their facilities.”
There will be a face-to-face meeting between intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh and commissioners in the near future in another attempt to resolve the impasse, Nadery added.
The International Committee of the Red Cross also monitors prisoners, but declined comment last week. The humanitarian organization doesn’t discuss findings of prison inspections, except with the nation involved.
Canada’s ambassador in Kabul, William Crosbie, seemed surprised by the dispute and downplayed it, saying whenever there are problems getting into prisons, it’s usually with individual wardens and not systemic obstruction.
Regardless, he said he’s satisfied that prisoners are being monitored carefully.
“We have a very rigorous process to identify whether any Canadian transferred prisoners are at risk,” Crosbie said in an interview with The Canadian Press over the weekend.
Both Foreign Affairs and Corrections Canada staff do follow-up visits.
The Afghan human rights commission noted that torture was still present in the country’s justice system, but the situation was improving.
“There was a decrease of 34 per cent in the rate of torture and ill-treatment perpetrated in prisons and detention centres,” said the 2009 annual report, which also noted general prison conditions were getting better.
Nadery credits the public attention on detainees and the removal of some known abusers for the decline.
The Conservative government often portrays the ongoing detainee issue as old news and as a matter that is not top of mind for Canadians.
And it hasn’t answered some questions related to it, principal among them being why Canadian troops capture so many more prisoners than other countries
Diplomat Richard Colvin told the special House of Commons committee on Afghanistan last November that the army cast too wide a dragnet and that the arbitrary arrests have made locals fear the Canadians.
“Many were just local people: farmers; truck drivers; tailors, peasants — random human beings in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Colvin testified on Nov. 18, 2009.
“They were picked up … during routine military operations, and on the basis typically not of intelligence (reports) but suspicion or unproven denunciation.”
Last September, the NDS halted transfers and complained that Canadians did not provide enough evidence for them to prosecute suspected insurgents.
Cases of Taliban fighters being captured red-handed are never in dispute, it is the instances where soldiers find someone following them and talking on a cellphone — or staking out their location.
The troops call them “dickers.”
Once a prisoner is taken, the time of capture is written down, sometimes on a piece of torn ration box cardboard, to ensure accuracy. Soldiers will ask questions in the field before the suspected insurgent is transferred to Kandahar Airfield.
And thus begins a highly legalized process that is a departure from the early days of handovers and has been constantly evolving.
Military intelligence officers must now ask permission in writing each time before interrogating suspects, who are processed with biometric scans, medical exams and given fresh clothes.