Former defence chief contradicts diplomat, says Afghan reports didn’t mention torture

A bristling Rick Hillier has blasted claims by diplomat Richard Colvin that the military handed over Afghan prisoners to face torture, calling the allegation “ludicrous.”

Former chief of the defence staff Gen. Rick Hillier (centre) Lieut. Gen. Michel Gauthier

OTTAWA — A bristling Rick Hillier has blasted claims by diplomat Richard Colvin that the military handed over Afghan prisoners to face torture, calling the allegation “ludicrous.”

The former chief of the defence staff told a Commons committee today that reports from Afghanistan in 2006 never mentioned that prisoners were at risk of torture.

“We didn’t base our work on things like reports written in May or June 2006, which said nothing about abuse, nothing about torture or anything else that would have caught my attention or indeed the attention of others,” he said.

He was backed by Michel Gauthier, former head of Canada’s expeditionary forces, who said reports in 2006 and early 2007 never even used the word torture — except in one isolated incidence.

The testimony from Canada’s former top generals appears to flatly contradict Colvin — the former No. 2 at the Canadian embassy in Kabul — who told MPs his reports warned that prisoners handed over to Afghan prisons were almost certain to face torture.

Hillier, who commanded the Canadians Forces from February 2005 until July 2008, said he wasn’t going to act on hearsay or self-serving Taliban complaints. He said he recently reread the reports to reassure himself that he didn’t miss something three years ago.

“There was no reason based on what was in those reports for anybody to bring it to my attention.”

Gauthier said he first heard of torture allegations in April 2007 from a Globe and Mail reporter, and the first field report citing credible evidence of torture was received on June 4, 2007.

He said he never received Colvin’s reports at the time, likely because his staff didn’t feel they were important enough to brief him on.

Colvin also alleged that many innocent farmers were arrested by Canadian troops and turned over to the Afghans.

“Nothing could be farther from the truth,” an indignant Hillier responded. “We detained, under violent actions, people trying to kill our sons and daughters who had, in some cases been successful at it.”

The vast majority of detainees were caught after attacks, he said, and were found to have explosive residue on their hands and gunshot residue on their clothing. If innocent farmers were swept up, he added, they would have been quickly released.

The retired general said it’s “ludicrous” to suggest that all detainees turned over by Canadian troops were tortured.

, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his cabinet ministers have insisted they never knew of the torture reports at the time.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay and other Conservative MPs have attacked Colvin’s credibility, suggesting — as did Hillier — that his reports were based on hearsay. The attacks came despite the fact that Colvin was promoted to an intelligence job at Canada’s embassy in Washington.

However, they acknowledge that the government changed its policy on prisoner transfers in 2007, to include closer monitoring of those handed over, based partly on Colvin’s advice.

The opposition wants to see his reports and other documents the government may have on the topic of abuse. MPs say they can’t get to the bottom of the issue without seeing the papers.

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