A select group of MPs has finally begun the arduous task of sifting through some 40,000 sensitive documents related to Afghan detainees.

One MP and one alternate from each of the Conservative, Liberal and Bloc Québécois parties, all sworn to secrecy, began this week to scrutinize the documents — almost seven months after opposition MPs passed a motion demanding access to the potentially explosive material.


Revelations from Richard Colvin, a former senior diplomat with Canada's mission in Afghanistan, spurred the House of Commons to pass a motion calling for the disclosure of thousands of military and government files. ((Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press))

However, an independent panel of three jurists, which is supposed to decide which documents can be released publicly, has still not been named.

The documents relate to allegations that prisoners were routinely tortured by Afghan authorities after being turned over by Canadian soldiers. Knowingly transferring a prisoner of war into a situation where they face torture is a war crime under international law.

The three parties reached an agreement last month on how to provide access to the documents without jeopardizing national security.

The NDP is refusing to take part, saying the process falls far short of a historic ruling by House of Commons Speaker Peter Milliken. Milliken ruled in May that MPs have an unfettered right to see documents and hold the government to account, and that this trumps all other concerns, including national security.

As part of the three-party deal, the select MPs will be able to see most documents and determine whether they are relevant to the torture allegations.

The panel of jurists is to determine how — or if — documents are to be released publicly. It may choose to summarize or censor documents that could imperil national security, international relations or the lives of soldiers in Afghanistan. As well, the panel is to decide whether the select MPs will be allowed to see documents deemed by the government to constitute legal advice.

'Critical piece'

Liberal House leader Ralph Goodale, who helped negotiate the deal, said there has been "a lot of back and forth" among the parties over possible panel members. He said some "very good" names have been suggested.

"The panel is obviously the next critical piece here and I would be hopeful that we would see some action on that within the very next short while," Goodale said in an interview.

While he's encouraged that the scrutiny of documents has begun, Goodale said Liberals will "complain vigorously" if they feel the government is dragging its heels on naming the jurists or otherwise trying to hold up the process.

"We need to watch this carefully because we don't want there to be any slippage."

For now, Goodale said the absence of the panel is not a problem. MPs can set aside documents that need a ruling by the panel and accumulate others over which there is no disagreement for eventual tabling in the Commons, likely on a monthly basis.

Bryon Wilfert, the Liberals' alternate, said he believes the Conservatives have been acting in good faith so far. He suggested the holdup in naming the panel members may simply reflect the difficulty in finding people willing to give up a chunk of their summer to devote to the task.

A spokesman for Justice Minister Rob Nicholson refused to comment on the panel.

But Michael Aubie of the prime minister's office said the select group of MPs will meet "throughout the summer" and the government looks forward to working with the other parties "in a manner that protects legitimate national security concerns."