PORT-OF-SPAIN — Prime Minister Stephen Harper assured Canada’s military Sunday that he and most Canadians stand behind them, even if his political opposition does not.
Before leaving the Commonwealth summit in Trinidad and Tobago, Harper took another backhanded swipe at MPs and others who have questioned the handling of prisoners captured during the war in Afghanistan.
“Let me just say this,” Harper said during a photo opportunity, “living as we do, in a time when some in the political arena do not hesitate before throwing the most serious of allegations at our men and women in uniform based on the most flimsy of evidence, remember that Canadians from coast to coast to coast are proud of you and stand behind you, and I am proud of you, and I stand beside you.”
That sparked another broadside from Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff who said: “Stephen Harper’s comments are beneath the office of Canada’s prime minister.”
“To use an audience of active Canadian service men and women serving abroad as a prop for political attacks is bad enough. To try to hide behind the brave men and women in uniform for his own government’s handling of the Afghan detainee scandal is even worse.”
The war of words erupted over questions about Canada’s prisoner-exchange practices in Afghanistan and committee testimony from intelligence specialist Richard Colvin.
Colvin told the Commons special committee on Afghanistan on Nov. 18 that as Canada’s No. 2 diplomat in Kandahar he repeatedly warned that prisoners turned over to Afghan authorities by Canadian troops were probably being tortured.
Harper and his Conservative caucus have continually cast Colvin and others who have questioned prisoner protocols and the practices in Afghan prisons as Taliban dupes and unpatriotic critics of Canada’s military.
The Tories have pointed fingers at their political opponents and played the patriotism card ever since opposition MPs and others began questioning prisoner transfer policies two years ago.
“I can understand the passion that the Leader of the Opposition and members of his party feel for the Taliban prisoners,” Harper told the Commons on March 21, 2007.
“I just wish occasionally they would show the same passion for Canadian soldiers.”
Yet Defence Minister Peter MacKay acknowledged Friday that his government knew of the problems and began to act shortly after taking office in January 2006.
A 2005 prisoner transfer agreement with the Afghan government was eventually renegotiated in May 2007 under intense public scrutiny after explosive media revelations about torture in Afghan prisons.
The international community has also acknowledged that torture is widely used in Afghan prisons.
An Afghan agency that was once entrusted to monitor Canadian-captured insurgents in Kandahar said last week it has documented nearly 400 cases of torture across the war-ravaged country.
The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission said in its latest report it uncovered 47 cases of abuse in Kandahar, where Canadian troops have been based since 2005.
“Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment are common in the majority of law enforcement institutions, and at least 98.5 per cent of interviewed victims have been tortured,” said the commission’s April 2009 study.
The independent study, which tracked abuse claims between 2001 and early 2008, shows the vast majority of them — 243 — were levelled in 2006 and 2007, when Colvin was in Afghanistan and warning the federal government about torture.