Canadian officials dismissed Afghan torture claims in 2006

Top Canadian officials discussed in 2006 whether the then-governor of Kandahar was involved in the torture of prisoners and dismissed the concern, The Canadian Press has learned.

Intelligence officer and ex-diplomat Richard Colvin

OTTAWA — Top Canadian officials discussed in 2006 whether the then-governor of Kandahar was involved in the torture of prisoners and dismissed the concern, The Canadian Press has learned.

The meeting in December of that year — months before torture claims became public — was the culmination of months of pressure from foreign affairs officials on the ground who wanted to see Asadullah Khalid shifted elsewhere, defence and foreign affairs sources said.

One source said the meeting was at the Privy Council Office and involved Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s then-national security adviser, Margaret Bloodworth.

The revelation raises further questions about how much senior officials knew about possible Afghan prisoner abuse, what they did about it, and whether they passed along that information to cabinet ministers — or simply ignored it.

It comes amid a political furor over explosive testimony by federal intelligence officer Richard Colvin.

Colvin told a special House of Commons committee Wednesday that prisoners were turned over to Afghanistan’s notorious intelligence service by the Canadian military in 2006-07 despite warnings that they would be tortured. He also suggested the federal government may have tried to cover up what was happening.

That sparked demands from the opposition Thursday for a public inquiry — demands that were promptly rejected by the Harper government.

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.

But Khalid represented a separate more delicate problem — one that was still considered urgent enough to be raised at the highest levels the bureaucracy and taken seriously.

The government’s line of defence in the House of Commons on Thursday was that Colvin was a “suspect source” of information and a possible Taliban dupe for raising the torture allegations in public.

Yet Defence Minister Peter MacKay later conceded that the government revised its prisoner transfer arrangement with the Karzai government in May 2007 partly because of Colvin’s warnings over the Afghan intelligence service.

What was left unresolved at the time were separate warnings about Khalid who allegedly maintained his own chain of private detention facilities in Kandahar.

Colvin testified that the former governor was “known to us very early on” and considered “an unusually bad actor on human rights issues.”

Defence sources said there were some “pretty heated discussions” between diplomats and military officers who supported Khalid, who was alleged in 2004 to have operated a private prison in Ghanzi — a province in eastern Afghanistan where he served as governor before coming to Kandahar in 2005.

“He had people killed who got in his way and then in Kandahar we found out that he had indeed set up a similar dungeon under his guest house,” Colvin testified at committee Wednesday.

“He acknowledged this when asked. He had sort of justifications for it, but he was known to personally torture people in that dungeon.”

Replacing him as governor was problematic because those posts are filled by presidential appointment. Still, Colvin acknowledged to the committee that foreign affairs officials argued for a change. It was that argument that was apparently put before Bloodworth and others in the December 2006 meeting.

Documents obtained by The Canadian Press under access to information laws show the military was enthusiastic in its support of Khalid during that period. But as time went on, the quarterly campaign assessments show the verve faded because Khalid was often out of the province, leaving important political decisions up in the air.

It’s unclear to what degree complaints by foreign affairs contributed to his falling from favour. What’s also not apparent is whether the military argued in 2006 meeting to keep him in place.

Staunchly anti-Taliban, Khalid was considered an asset to the burgeoning war. He once paraded the bloodied body of a dead Taliban commander before the local media in Kandahar.

Both foreign affairs and defence sources said no notes were kept of the Khalid meeting.

Canada’s private unease with Khalid went on for almost another 17 months.

Published reports in February 2008 raised concern about his possible involvement in torture and then-foreign affairs minister Maxime Bernier let it slip out three months later that Ottawa wanted him gone — an embarrassing revelation that forced President Hamid Karzai to keep the governor in place.

Khalid was eventually replaced in August 2008.

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