Government wanted quick Afghan detainee transfers

Canada's top two commanders in Afghanistan in spring 2006 said the government pressured them to transfer detainees to Afghan authorities faster than they felt was appropriate, CBC News has learned.

Afghan officials refused to take detainees between July and October

Political prisoners are kept in a special wing at Sarposa prison in Kandahar, Afghanistan. ((Dene Moore/Canadian Press))

Canada's top two commanders in Afghanistan in spring 2006 told investigators the government pressured them to transfer detainees to Afghan authorities faster than they felt was appropriate, CBC News has learned.

Investigators for the military police complaints commission interviewed Brig.-Gen. David Fraser and Lt.-Col. Tom Putt, who both described the government as being obsessed with speed when it came to the transfer of Afghan detainees, according to transcripts of those interviews obtained by CBC News.

Commanders in Canada wanted detainees handed over within 12 hours — faster, in most cases, than soldiers in the field could process them.

The first three Afghan detainees captured by Canadian troops in Kandahar province were taken April 6, 2006. After being on the receiving end of a Canadian attack, they needed medical care and, according to military orders, to be questioned and eventually transferred to Afghan authorities.

All of this usually happened within 96 hours — too slow for the government, according to Fraser's and Putt's accounts to investigators examining allegations of abuse of Afghan detainees.

The moment a detainee was captured, Fraser said, he had to notify his boss in Ottawa, Lt.-Gen. Michel Gauthier.

"As soon as I got a detainee, I would phone him," Fraser said, adding the question he got back was: "How fast could we get them to hand over to the Afghan authorities?"

Fraser, who was in charge of Canadian troops in Afghanistan in 2006, said the question puzzled him because he didn't understand the need for speed.

Neither did Putt, who was Fraser's deputy and the commander responsible for the handling of detainees. He said the government's unofficial goal for transfer was 12 hours.

But it was difficult to get the prisoners back to base in Kandahar and they often required medical treatment, all of which took time.

Putt said he resisted Ottawa's calls for speed, sometimes because it was difficult to find an Afghan authority for the transfer.

"We took a bit of heat on that from Ottawa," Putt told investigators. "' Move, move, move,' [but] we can't. … There's no one to hand them off to in the police station, you know?"

Both Putt and Fraser said the military's interest in detainees ended as soon as the prisoners were transferred. The military didn't monitor their condition — that was not its jurisdiction, Fraser said.

And the government's position was that monitoring detainees was an Afghan problem.

"It's their country, it's their elected government, it's their security forces, and if we can't, you know, hand [detainees] off to them, then you know, why are we here?" Putt said.

Richard Colvin, a former senior diplomat with Canada's mission in Afghanistan, testifies at a parliamentary committee in Ottawa in November. ((Chris Wattie/Reuters))

It wasn't until a full year after Canada started transferring detainees that the government started monitoring their treatment. In the meantime, it has been alleged that many had been abused — possibly even tortured.

Richard Colvin, a former senior diplomat with Canada's mission in Afghanistan, told a parliamentary committee last month that all detainees transferred by Canadians to Afghan prisons were likely tortured by Afghan officials.

He also said his concerns were ignored by top government officials and that the government may have tried to cover up the issue.

The government denies the allegations, saying the majority of them are baseless and made by the Taliban.

Putt's testimony also suggests Canadian troops frequently weren't capturing high-value Taliban targets — an assertion Colvin first raised two weeks ago.

"I mean, we were basically capturing a local yokel, " Putt said. "Detaining the local yokels and handing them off."

Meanwhile, for at least a few weeks this past summer, the Afghan Intelligence Service refused to accept any detainees transferred by Canadian Forces in Afghanistan.

The decision was made between July and October and affected the transfer of every prisoner captured by a Canadian soldier anywhere in Afghanistan, no matter the crime.

Late Thursday, the Canadian Forces confirmed to CBC News that transfers were suspended because of Afghan complaints about the quality of evidence provided by Canadian troops and the inability of Afghan prosecutors to use that evidence in judicial proceedings.

The complaints apparently found their way to Amruallh Saleh, head of the National Directorate of Security in Kabul, who issued the order to refuse any more Canadian-transferred detainees.

"They asked us to pause," said  Lt.-Col. Chris LeMay, a spokesman for the Canadian Expeditionary Force Command in Ottawa. "It was related to evidence issues. The pause lasted a few weeks."

William Crosbie, Canada's ambassador to Afghanistan, met with Saleh in September and was able to have the Afghan decision reversed, but not before weeks of frustration among Canadian troops on the ground in Kandahar.

With files from James Cudmore, CBC