Ignatieff wants Afghan documents released

The judges who decided secret documents about prisoners in Afghanistan can't be released with Parliament not sitting have simply put the issue back in the political leaders' court, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said Friday.
A man Afghan authorities suspect of insurgency-related activities is interrogated during a joint Canadian-Afghan army patrol in the Panjwaii District of Kandahar province in July 2009.

The panel of judges who decided secret documents about Canadian prisoners in Afghanistan cannot be released with Parliament not sitting have simply put the issue back in the political leaders' court, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said Friday.

With all the party leaders saying they favour releasing the documents now, it should be possible to do that, Ignatieff told reporters in Ottawa.

"There ought to be a way to solve this thing .… There's no reason to conceal these documents," he said.

He said he had had no response yet from the Conservatives.

"This is an issue of … the integrity of our parliamentary system, and I think it's very important for Canadians to have all the truth about these documents," he said. "And I call on the prime minister to work with me and with other party leader to get these documents out as soon as possible."

Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe echoed the sentiment Friday as he campaigned in Quebec. He said he wasn't concerned about the process, just about getting the documents released. Today is the deadline he set for that, because process was already taking too long, he said.

Conservatives willing to amend

The Conservatives said Thursday they are willing to amend an agreement with two opposition parties to allow for the release of secret documents about Canadian prisoners in Afghanistan.

The document review is the second report sidelined by the election call, as all parties have also called for the release of the auditor general's report into spending for last year's G8 and G20 summits following the leak of a scathing draft report.

The memorandum of understanding signed by Harper, Ignatieff and Duceppe agreed to the formation of a committee of MPs to determine how to release the documents.

The judges' letter, dated Wednesday, states that while the memorandum "contemplates that under certain conditions it will survive the dissolution of Parliament, whether those conditions will be met cannot be ascertained until the House reconvenes."

The panel consisted of former Supreme Court of Canada justices Claire L’Heureux-Dubé and Frank Iacobucci. A third member of the panel, former B.C. Supreme Court chief justice Donald Brenner, died on March 12. 

The judges had said they would continue to work on finalizing the report by Friday and preparing the thousands of documents for release.

"However, since there is no committee in existence to which we can deliver it …, we will retain this material pending the summoning of a new Parliament and any further directions that might be provided to the [judges'] panel at that time," the judges write.

Historic ruling

In a historic ruling last spring, the Speaker of the House of Commons ruled the Conservatives had breached parliamentary privilege by denying MPs their right to see the documents. But then-Speaker Peter Milliken also gave the government and opposition the chance to figure out a way to share them while accommodating the government's national security concerns.

The committee was struck last May in a compromise deal that avoided a finding of contempt against the government that would have triggered a vote of non-confidence and a potential snap election.

The parties agreed to contribute two MPs each to the committee, which is working with the panel of legal experts to decide what can be released to Parliament.

The NDP pulled out of the working group while they were still negotiating the terms, arguing the Tories weren't being co-operative and the process would not lead to Canadians seeing the records.

The documents are at the centre of accusations that prisoners were tortured by Afghan authorities after being handed over by Canadian troops. The government maintained that releasing the documents posed a threat to national security and the security of Canadian troops in Afghanistan.

With files from Greg Weston