OTTAWA — A public hearing by a military watchdog into the handling of Afghan prisoners has been rescheduled for the spring, but whether the federal government actually lets it proceed is uncertain.
The resumption of the inquiry was debated Thursday amid the fallout from Gen. Walt Natynczyk’s explosive revelation that a Canadian-captured detainee was indeed abused, contrary to the Tory government assurances that there was no evidence of torture prior to 2007.
Peter Tinsley, the outgoing chairman of the Military Police Complaints Commission, said it was necessary to set a date for the resumption of the inquiry, but Conservative government has yet to appoint his successor — something that could further delay or even kill the proceedings.
“It’s certainly unusual, if not unprecedented, for the constitution of a panel hearing such a significant matter to be wilfully altered at this stage,” he said in his final public comments as chairman.
Tinsley, a respected former war crimes prosecutor, is one of two commission panellists hearing the prisoner abuse case. His departure raises questions about whether his successor will be able to get up to speed — or even be interested in continuing with the inquiry.
A lawyer for Amnesty International and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, which initiated the complaint about the transfer of prisoners almost three years ago, said the delay in appointing a new chairman is not a good sign.
Paul Champ said federal lawyers and officials have done their best to obstruct the commission’s investigation of what military police knew — or should have known — about the transfer of prisoners to possible torture in Afghan jails.
Most of the delays have revolved around the federal government’s challenge of the commission’s jurisdiction and the glacial pace at which documents have been handed over to investigators.
The hearings, which were suspended in October because of a court challenge, are slated to resume on March 22, pending government delivery of roughly 200 pages of censored documents.
A further 340,000 pages are also under national security review and vetting, said Alain Prefontaine, the government’s lead lawyer.
Champ is skeptical the hearings will start on time given the government’s track record and wondered aloud Thursday whether Amnesty would continue with the commission fight — or broaden the scope of its complaint following Natynczyk’s revelation about abuse.
Tinsley was equally doubtful.
“The commission isn’t without skepticism and cynicism itself,” he said.
The federal government has insisted the commission can carry on with the complex investigation under a new commissioner and that it would have been unprecedented to reappoint Tinsley.
The Liberals turned up the heat on the Tories Thursday by using their opposition day to introduce a Commons motion to force the government to release documents on the detainee issue.
Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff accused the government of censoring with “Soviet zeal” and demanded to see all records related to incident referred to by Natynczyk.
“For over a year, the Conservatives had credible reports of torture from Canadian diplomats and soldiers in the field—and they did nothing,” Ignatieff told the Commons.
“They must account for that year of wilful blindness. Their refusal to get to the truth is costing us our credibility on human rights, and is a threat to the honour of Canada, which our troops so bravely uphold every day that they serve.”