Afghan detainee records still hold questions, MPs say

The government drops 4,000 pages of less-censored Afghan detainee records on the House of Commons — a move it hopes will end the questions on the issue, although the opposition says it just raises more.
An Afghan detainee is seen inside the Parwan detention facility near Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan in March. (Dar Yasin/Associated Press)

The government dropped 4,000 pages of less-censored Afghan detainee records on the House of Commons Wednesday — a move it hoped would end the questions on the issue but one the opposition said just raised more.

The documents, which had previously been released in a heavily censored form, offered few clues to answer the question of whether Canadian officials knew they were transferring detainees to possible torture at the hands of Afghan officials.

It's illegal under Canadian law to transfer prisoners to another country's custody if they risk mistreatment.

After years of debate in the Commons leading to a decision that MPs had a right to see the full documents, the Conservatives, Liberals and Bloc Québécois struck a panel of MPs to review the emails, meeting notes and other records related to Canada's mission in Afghanistan to see what could be uncensored. They were advised by three former Supreme Court justices, who made final rulings over what could be restored.

Documents online

We are posting the 362 documents tabled in Parliament online. Read and search the documents and tell us what information stands out to you. 

The Conservative government has released stacks of records in the past, but the bulk of the documents was blacked out, making many of the records unreadable. The government said the redactions were necessary to protect national security and to block lines that could be injurious to Canada's international relations.

But despite a year of work with six MPs spending hours on end locked in a secure location somewhere in Ottawa, the documents offered little more than Canadians already know.

Because the government declared the process over, the panel had to choose priority documents to uncensor. Some sections remain blacked out, while others are summarized rather than using the original wording.

'Not over'

The summarized sections offer a clearer picture of what was redacted: discussions of diplomacy and what specifically would be discussed with Afghan authorities, as well as a better idea of how many detainees were in custody at any given time.

Previously, the number of Canadian-transferred detainees was blacked out of all of the released reports. But this round of documents is more specific, offering approximate numbers, such as "fewer than 20."

Some newly revealed sections suggest the government should have been more aware of the risk of torture.

A report that appears to come from the Department of Foreign Affairs in early 2006 notes: "Extrajudicial executions, disappearances, torture, and detention without trial are all too common," and "While the state does not condone physical abuse, (certain sectors of government) have been involved in arbitrary arrests, kidnapping, extortion, torture and extrajudicial killings of criminal suspects."

A still-redacted sentence in the report was summarized as "Reliable reports regarding the use of torture as part of police procedure were discussed."

The documents show the federal government should have known there was a risk of torture to the Canadian-transferred detainees, Liberal MP Stéphane Dion said Wednesday.

Dion, who was on the panel, says the documents show a lot of allegations and warnings, which should prompt questions the government will need to answer.

"The government must answer about its lack of leadership on this issue," Dion said, adding there are troubling questions. "I don't think Canadians will accept that it's over."

But Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said the release of 4,000 pages of documents on Wednesday answers all remaining questions.

"It is clear that the accusations of improper conduct are unfounded," he said.

Baird said the process is now over. That leaves an estimated 36,000 pages that the public won't see in a less-censored form.

Process cost $12M

Baird said the process cost $12 million, but a government official later admitted that amount includes the cost of producing and redacting documents for two proceedings at the Military Police Complaints Commission. The commission spent months conducting hearings on a complaint by Amnesty International.

The cost to find and redact documents was $10 million, of which $7.5 million is due to the commission hearings, Baird spokesman Chris Day wrote in an email.

"The remaining $2 [million] relate to remuneration and disbursements associated with the work of the panel," he wrote.

The panel of arbiters released a 32-page report explaining the process of review and what redactions in the priority documents have been lifted.

MPs asked the judges to review about 360 redactions.

A paragraph in the final report by the panel of arbiters hints that they had planned for more documents to come.

"Together with this report, we had planned to deliver to the Committee the first set of documents that we have reviewed in accordance with our mandate under the [memorandum of understanding] and that are ready for release," the justices wrote. "Our intention was to continue to deliver documents to the Committee as we completed our review of them and they became ready for release."

Two of the three people who signed the memorandum, however, are no longer MPs: former Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff and former Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe were the original signatories with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Issue not with troops, Dion says

Dion said it's clear Canadian troops acted professionally, but the government didn't act as it should have.

"The likelihood is very high" that a detainee was abused while in the custody of Afghan authorities, Dion said.

Baird said the detainees, whom he referred to as Taliban, were visited by Canadian officials in prison, as well as by human rights observers.

Testimony at the Military Police Complaints Commission, however, shows the Canadian government visits tapered off and both interviews and visual inspections all but came to a halt less than a year after they began.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay said more than 37,000 Canadian Forces members have "shown unfailing dedication and leadership ... to help Afghans secure a more stable life."

Canadian Forces have had to face "gruelling insurgence" in Afghanistan but treat issues of detainee transfers with the "highest degree of rigour," he said.

No conclusion, NDP say

NDP defence critic Jack Harris says this is just a small piece of the story and it's not possible to draw the conclusions made by MacKay and Baird.

The only way to get all the answers is to have a public inquiry, said Harris.

All the paper can't take away from the fact the government, with the backing of the Liberals and the Bloc Québécois, have "hidden the truth from the Canadian people," he said.

"There is no conclusion possible from this here at all," Harris said.


Beginning in 2007, questions began to surface about whether detainees turned over to Afghan authorities risked being tortured in the country's notorious prisons.

Since then, snippets of information have come to light, including the fact the Canadian Forces stopped prisoner transfers on three separate occasions because of reports of torture.

In one widely reported case, a prisoner showed an official from Foreign Affairs the tools used in his torture, including a cable that lay coiled under a chair.

In April 2010, Peter Milliken, the Speaker at the time, ruled the House had the right to see the unredacted documents and gave the parties time to work out an agreement.

The NDP — at the time the smallest party in Parliament but now Canada's Official Opposition — said the process wouldn't work and pulled out, leaving the Liberals and Bloc to represent the opposition parties. 

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