Ethics watchdog won't investigate Sajjan over Afghan detainee inquiry decision

The federal conflict of interest commissioner has declined to investigate a complaint against Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan over a decision not to hold a public inquiry into unresolved questions related to the handling of Afghan detainees.

Liberals, who championed Afghan detainee inquiry in opposition, now say probe not needed

An Afghan prisoner is transported by Canadian Forces in Afghanistan in 2011. Multiple reports and media stories during the Afghan conflict included allegations about the abusive tactics of Afghan police, including allegations of police engaging in child abuse. (Murray Brewster/Canadian Press)

The federal conflict of interest commissioner has declined to investigate a complaint against Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan over a decision not to hold a public inquiry into unresolved questions related to the handling of suspected Taliban prisoners during the Afghan war.

The complaint was filed by former New Democrat MP Craig Scott, who has returned to teaching at York University in Toronto.

Last spring, Scott spearheaded a federal e-petition calling on the Liberal government to fulfil a commitment — made while in opposition — to hold an inquiry into the handling of allegations around the treatment of Afghan detainees.

It was Sajjan who turned down the call.

Scott, however, argued the defence minister should never have made the decision because he was a liaison and intelligence officer during the conflict in Kandahar, and therefore had a personal vested interest in not seeing an inquiry.

Although conflict commissioner Mary Dawson decided against a probe, she said she did conduct a review because Scott's letter "left me with concerns."

The concerns raised by the petition were raised directly with Sajjan, who did three deployments during the five-year combat mission. Dawson said she is satisfied with his answers.

Sajjan 'conveying' a decision

"It appears that Mr. Sajjan was simply conveying a government decision," Dawson wrote in a Feb. 27 letter obtained by CBC News. "Furthermore, I have no information to suggest that Mr. Sajjan actually had any knowledge related to Afghan detainees, nor any involvement in the matter."

The question of what the former Conservative government knew of the alleged torture carried out by local Afghan authorities was at the centre of a number of political crises between 2007 and 2010.

Aside from being an important point of international law, the minority government of former prime minister Stephen Harper was almost brought down over its refusal to hand over documents related to the issue.

A pair of human rights groups also fought protracted legal battles to halt the practise of Canadian troops handing suspected Taliban prisoners over to local authorities.  

According to the commissioner's letter, the minister was not "involved in the transfer of detainees, nor did he have any knowledge relating to that matter."

Sajjan told Dawson that he deployed as a reservist and was "responsible for capacity with the local police forces."

Afghanistan's police were not without problems. They were, according to human rights groups, considered among the worst abusers of detainees, next to the National Directorate of Security —  Afghanistan's brutal intelligence service.

Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson says she is satisfied Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan was not involved in the transfer of detainees. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

There were multiple reports and media stories during the conflict about the abusive tactics of Afghan police, including allegations from a Canadian soldier that local cops engaged in child abuse.

Sajjan told Dawson he was unaware of any abuse and that he and other members of the Forces were under orders to report such a thing, if it occurred.

Further, he says the Military Police Complaints Commission investigated claims that Canadians knew — or ought to have known — about torture in Afghan jails. The same watchdog is currently investigating fresh allegations of rough treatment of prisoners.

"Mr. Sajjan told me that he did not have any information relevant to the inquiries," Dawson wrote.

In turning down Scott's petition for an inquiry last June, Sajjan said the Liberal government does not believe an independent judicial inquiry is necessary.

About the Author

Murray Brewster

Defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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