OTTAWA — Canada’s former top official on Afghanistan is challenging claims that the military handed over Afghan prisoners to face torture despite warnings.
David Mulroney, now ambassador to China, told a House of Commons committee Thursday that he never tried to hush up talk of torture in Afghanistan.
His testimony appears to contradict that of Richard Colvin, the former No. 2 at the Canadian embassy in Kabul.
Colvin told MPs last week that reports he filed in 2006-07 warned that prisoners handed over to Afghan prisons were almost certain to face torture. He also claimed he and others in Afghanistan were ordered to stop mentioning torture in their reports.
But Mulroney, who headed the Afghanistan task force in the Foreign Affairs Department, said diplomats in Afghanistan were never ordered to censor their reports.
Mulroney’s testimony partially echoed that of Canada’s former top soldier and two other generals.
On Wednesday, ex-defence chief Rick Hillier called Colvin’s allegation “ludicrous.”
Hillier, retired general Michel Gauthier and Maj.-Gen. David Fraser all testified they never received any reports of torture until the spring of 2007 — long after Colvin filed his reports.
Hillier and Gauthier, went further, saying they recently reviewed reports from 2006-07 and there was no mention of torture — except one isolated mention in December 2006.
But the dust from the generals’ testimony hadn’t even settled before contradictions began to emerge.
Uncensored versions of Colvin’s reports began circulating that said the International Committee of the Red Cross was named in emails to Ottawa as expressing “alarm” about conditions within Afghan prisons.
The references were particularly stark in one memo written by the diplomat on June 2, 2006.
An official who’s seen Colvin’s emailed reports conceded that the Red Cross was “really pissed off” for procedural reasons about Canada’s tardy reporting whenever a prisoner was captured, but it was “more concerned about what was done to detainees after they were handed over.”
The reports were widely distributed in both the defence and foreign affairs departments, and even apparently copied to the office of Peter MacKay, who was minister of foreign affairs in 2006.
Another apparent inconsistency is Gauthier’s claim that 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.
Before that story broke, the federal government asked the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission to monitor prisoners on Canada’s behalf. None of the generals explained why the unusual step was taken if no one in the federal government had any concerns.
Canada originally agreed to hand over prisoners, but unlike other nations it didn’t reserve the right to check on them to make sure they were not abused. Once the torture allegations were published in 2007, Ottawa rewrote the deal, allowing for greater access to the prisons and provided for unannounced inspections to check for abuse.
Opposition MPs say they can’t get to the bottom of the issue without seeing Colvin’s reports and other documents the government may have on the topic of abuse.
Both Hillier and Gauthier said they had access to the reports in preparing for their testimony, and Gauthier went as far as to tell MPs he hoped they would get access to the records.
Opposition MPs wondered aloud how it was that retired officers could have unfettered access to documents that the federal government has deemed too sensitive to share with a parliamentary committee.
While Prime Minister Stephen Harper has promised the committee will get “all legally-available” documents, Colvin’s lawyer said the Justice Department has clamped down on him.
Lori Bokenfohr said government lawyers have told Colvin they do not accept an opinion that testimony — both written and oral — before Parliament is exempt from national security provisions of the Canada Evidence Act.
That comes after the clerk of the special Afghanistan committee advised that parliamentary immunity would apply to almost all testimony.
MacKay, who is now minister of defence, 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.