Military police left out of Afghan detainee loop: lawyer

A lawyer for Amnesty International says military police didn't want to ask "inconvenient questions" about the possible torture of prisoners in Afghanistan.
Amnesty International lawyer Paul Champ, seen in 2009, says military police officers were kept in the dark about prisoner transfers. ((Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press))

A lawyer for Amnesty International says military police didn't want to ask "inconvenient questions" about the possible torture of prisoners in Afghanistan.

Paul Champ is summing up the human rights group's case before a military watchdog agency that's been investigating what the army knew — or should have known — about alleged abuse.

He says evidence before the Military Police Complaints Commission shows that military cops were left out of decision-making by senior commanders and often kept in the dark about prisoner transfers.

"We can conclude that military police were not only marginalized by the chain of command, but more significantly, more importantly for what you will be called upon to find, is that military police themselves felt there were questions they shouldn't ask; things that were uncomfortable or inconvenient," Champ said.

"Their duty required them to do more."

Long legal battle

Both Amnesty and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association have fought a long legal battle to stop the Canadian military from handing over suspected Taliban prisoners to Afghanistan's notorious intelligence service.

Champ said there were enough general warnings and "suspicions" about torture in Afghan prisons for military police to open a formal investigation.

"It was clearly a matter that should have been of interest to military police," he said.

Under international law, the Canadian military is obliged not to transfer prisoners to other nations which might torture them.

Champ said the Ottawa bureaucracy and the military in particular were in a state of denial about what was happening in Afghan prisons and resisted hearing warnings, including those from whistleblower-diplomat Richard Colvin.

"The Canadian Forces commanders lost sight of their human rights obligations," said Champ. "It's troubling."

Colvin wrote two reports early in the mission, which suggested, but did not explicitly state, that Canadian-captured prisoners were abused.

Government's defence a smokescreen: Champ

In its defence, the Conservative government seized on that ambiguity to dismiss his claims and has consistently said it has not received, save in one instance, credible, verified accounts of torture.

Champ said Colvin's warnings should have been given more weight at the time and that the government's main line of defence is a smokescreen.

He cited a number of other cases, including the Syrian detention and torture of Maher Arar, where it was noted the absence of hard evidence of abuse should not have prevented federal government officials from investigating.

The commission has been involved in pitched legal and political battles since it announced it would hold public hearings into the complaints by Amnesty and the civil liberties association.

Fight over access to documents

The federal government went to court in 2009 to limit the scope of the inquiry.

There were prolonged fights over the inquiry's demand for access to military and foreign affairs documents. Federal lawyers threw a national security blanket over almost all records, but they finally agreed to produce censored versions.

The glacial pace of disclosure prompted opposition Members of Parliament to take up the cause. 

The political fight escalated when they ran into a brick wall of censorship and culminated when the Liberals introduced a motion in the House of Commons that threatened a formal, parliamentary sanction — which called the Harper minority government's survival into question.

The Conservatives agreed to set up an independent panel that would examine what documents MPs could see. That panel is still grinding away and the issue of the treatment of Afghan prisoners has fallen off the political map.

Alex Neve, the secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, said the government has successfully buried the matter.

"This is a crucial human rights concern," he said. "We have tried so many different ways to have that issue taken seriously; through the courts; through the political process and at every turn we were faced with obstruction, denial.

"We were assured it wasn't a problem. This is our final opportunity to finally have this issue taken seriously."