Senior diplomat Richard Colvin says Canadian officials didn't want to deal with the "hot potato" of detainees being abused and tortured in Afghan custody when he was working in the country in 2006 and 2007.

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Richard Colvin, a former senior diplomat with Canada's mission in Afghanistan, testifies at the Military Police Complaints Commission on Tuesday in Ottawa. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))

Appearing Tuesday before the civilian-run Military Police Complaints Commission in Ottawa, Colvin testified he heard allegations of prisoner mistreatment within a month of his arrival in Afghanistan and said he and his colleagues soon learned the "patterns of risk facing our detainees."

Colvin said his first visit to Sarpoza prison in May 2006 immediately revealed that Canadian delays in reporting prisoner transfers created a "serious problem" for the International Committee of the Red Cross as it tried to keep track of detainees.

Under a December 2005 memorandum of understanding in place at the time, the Red Cross was responsible for monitoring and tracking detainees handed over by Canadian soldiers to Afghan police and the Afghan National Directorate of Security.

When Colvin met with Red Cross officials after his visit to the prison, he said he was surprised at how forceful they were about their concerns and how little information Canada gave them to track detainees after they were handed over.

"They were losing many, if not most — and possibly all — of our detainees," he said of the Red Cross's attempts at followup.

Colvin said he had difficulty finding anyone in the Canadian Forces to take his calls regarding the "high risk" of mistreatment of detainees at the hands of Canada's Afghan allies.

He said Maj. Erik Liebert, his colleague on the Provincial Reconstruction Team, told him "no one wants to touch this hot potato."

Political firestorm

Colvin sparked a political firestorm last November when he told a Commons committee that all detainees transferred to Afghan prisons were likely tortured by Afghan officials. He has alleged Canadian government and military officials were well aware of the problem.

On Tuesday, Colvin reiterated his previous assertion that he and his colleagues soon heard "very credible" information about the "systemic risk" of mistreatment of prisoners, but Canadian heel-dragging on reporting transfers thwarted the Red Cross's attempts to follow up on the detainees' conditions.

He said Canadian officials would often notify the Red Cross about transfers weeks or months after they occurred. The notifications often would only include a name or a village, which wasn't enough for the international agency to locate a prisoner, let alone learn whether there was mistreatment, he added.

"It seems to me intriguing that they are told they have the right to monitor, but then we block them from doing it," he said.

Colvin recalled a comment from an official at NATO's International Security Assistance Force, who told him that getting information from Canadians was "like getting blood from a stone."

Colvin, who worked in Kandahar for the Foreign Affairs Department in 2006 and later as the Canadian Embassy's second-in-command in Kabul, visited Afghan detainees as part of his duties. He wrote reports about those visits and sent them to Ottawa.

The federal government and military commanders have said Colvin's claims are baseless. But opposition parties have called on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to hold a full public inquiry and demanded the government release unredacted copies of all documents pertaining to the Afghan detainee affair.

Citing security and safety concerns, the government has defended the practice of censoring documents but has appointed retired Supreme Court justice Frank Iacobucci to review the material.

In April 2007, after allegations of torture became public, the government rushed out a new agreement that would allow Canada to monitor its detainees.

Colvin said he visited an Afghan prison soon after the new agreement was reached and heard first-hand accounts of abuse. But in the end, Canadian monitors only ended up speaking to about six detainees, leaving at least 96 more who might have been abused as well, he told the commission.

In was in this context that Colvin flew to Ottawa for an inter-agency meeting in March 2007 with about a dozen government officials. When he soon realized his warnings about abuse allegations surrounding the Afghan secret police weren't reaching superiors, he decided to drop his normally cautious and diplomatic language in favour of speaking bluntly.

The Afghan National Directorate of Security "tortures people, that's what they do," he recalled saying at the meeting. "And if we don't want our detainees tortured, we shouldn't give them to the NDS."

Colvin said that statement was met with silence and the note-taker at the meeting put down her pen.

Ex-governor 'a bad actor'

Colvin also said Tuesday that in May and June 2006, Canadian government and military officials knew about the bad reputation of Asadullah Khalid, the governor of Kandahar province at the time.

Colvin said Canadian officials were hearing "credible" reports that Khalid was running a drug network and had a "terrible" human rights record, including reports of his use of private detention facilities to hold businessmen who, in some cases, were never seen again.

He also detailed other reports of abuses swirling around the then governor, including allegations of him using drugs and sexually abusing young girls.

Colvin said he met with Khalid "quite regularly" and described the feared governor as a "charming man" who spoke English well.

However, "he was a bad actor," Colvin said.

"Generally, among people we met, it was quite hard to find someone who had a good thing to say about him."

The commission is holding hearings based on complaints filed in 2007 and 2008 by Amnesty International Canada and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association that Canadian military police didn't properly investigate officers responsible for directing detainee transfers.

Transferring prisoners between countries while knowing they likely face torture is considered a war crime.

With files from James Cudmore and The Canadian Press