OTTAWA — A politically explosive controversy that haunted the Harper government throughout the Afghan war blew up again Thursday as the Military Police Complaints Commission said it would investigate fresh allegations of prisoner abuse from the end of Canada’s five-year campaign in Kandahar.
The watchdog agency said it received an anonymous complaint in February 2015, an accusation a human rights lawyer called potentially more serious than the marathon inquiry and Federal Court cases that preceded it.
Paul Champ, who represented Amnesty International and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association during an earlier investigation, noted the new allegations involve Canadian soldiers, giving them deeper and perhaps broader international significance.
“If these incidents occurred as described, it is clearly a violation of the Geneva Convention and a violation of international law,” Champ said in an interview.
How the new Liberal government responds, and whether it co-operates with the commission investigation, will be an important test of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s pledge of openness and accountability, he added.
Stephen Harper’s Conservative government and the Department of National Defence spent years stonewalling the first set of hearings, much to the outrage of the Liberal opposition.
The case is also an important test for newly appointed Defence Minister Harjitt Singh Sajjan, who was around at the time of the latest allegations, serving as a senior adviser to the U.S. general running the war in southern Afghanistan.
The commission spent four years investigating allegations that the army transferred suspected Taliban prisoners to Afghan intelligence and justice officials knowing they faced the likelihood of torture, a violation of international law. Three years ago, the agency’s final report cleared military cops of wrongdoing.
The new allegations suggest that in late 2010 and early 2011, the commanding officer of the military police detachment at Kandahar Airfield ran exercises in empty detention cells next to those holding detainees in order to “terrorize” them.
They also suggest police went into cells in the middle of the night with weapons, pressed detainees against the wall and floor and applied armlocks — a grappling manoeuvre used to restrain an adversary.
Champ says the U.S. military has been known to use the same tactic and he is “quite surprised” to learn Canadians may have adopted it.
Although it doesn’t rise to the level of violence and torture of which Afghans were accused, Champ said he wonders whether such measures were condoned at a time when the Harper government was mopping up the political fallout of the initial controversy.
The complainant also raised concerns about the military’s own investigations into the incidents, including the fact that no charges were laid and no court martial convened.
“The allegation that the military police may have been involved in covering up misconduct … is a very grave one that goes to the heart of the MPCC’s mandate to ensure accountability for the MP and to foster public confidence in the availability of a suitable independent mechanism to investigate alleged misconduct,” dommission chairwoman Hilary McCormack said in a statement.
National Defence issued a statement saying it welcomes the investigation. Spokeswoman Ashley Lemire would only add that “(National Defence) and the (Canadian Armed Forces) will not speculate on possible outcomes.”
The commission said the person who sent in the complaint went to great lengths to conceal their identity, mailing a one-page, typewritten letter from the Sheraton Gateway Hotel at Pearson International Airport.
It included the names of five people listed as references for information about the incident and internal investigations and the commission contacted them before deciding to launch a review.
McCormack said the information obtained suggests there was a perception on the part of people deployed in Kandahar that some of the decisions made about the investigations were the result of orders coming from “Ottawa” or because of concerns about the military’s reputation in light of the attention that issues involving detainees can generate.
The fact the complaint was made anonymously is also important, McCormack said.
“Both the nature of the allegations and the manner in which the complaint was made tend to imply a lack of confidence on the complainant’s part in the independence of the military police when investigating alleged misconduct by CAF members and in the ability of the military police to investigate themselves impartially,” she wrote.
“Under the specific circumstances of this case, only an independent investigation could provide sufficient reassurance to the complainant and to others, so that in the future individuals are not dissuaded from stepping forward to voice their concerns or complaints due to fear of reprisals or lack of confidence in the mechanisms available to investigate such complaints.”