Liberals feared Abu Ghraib-type detainee scandal: source

The Liberal government of 2005 feared Canada's detention of Afghan prisoners would spark a controversy similar to Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, according to a current government official who spoke with CBC News.
Afghan police guard a prison in Kabul in 2004. Canadian diplomat Eileen Olexiuk says that in 2005 she raised the possibility detainees transferred from Canadian to Afghan custody were at risk of torture. ((Musadeq Sadeq/Associated Press))

The Liberal government of 2005 feared Canada's detention of Afghan prisoners would spark a controversy similar to Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, according to a current government official who spoke with CBC News on condition of anonymity.

The official's claim comes just after Eileen Olexiuk, a former Canadian diplomat with extensive experience in Afghanistan, disclosed that in 2005, she raised the possibility detainees transferred from Canadian to Afghan custody were at risk of torture. Paul Martin's government ignored her concerns, she said.

The government official, who has been involved with the detainee issue for years, confirmed much of what Olexiuk said and added it's clear now Canada should have done more in 2005, when that first detainee transfer agreement was negotiated with the Afghan government.

He said the Liberal government looked at three options as it considered moving Canadian troops to the embattled Kandahar province from the relative stability of Kabul:
  • A "take and keep," which the official said raised fears of problems such as those the U.S. encountered with its control of the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq or its detention of terrorism suspects at its naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
  • Handing off detainees to U.S. forces for transfer to U.S. facilities like Guantanamo, which had already led to trouble for a previous Liberal defence minister, Art Eggleton.
  • Working with Afghans and the local system in place at the time.

In the end, the government opted for the third option, the official said, adding officials and politicians felt they had to trust that helping the Afghans improve their own prison system would be enough to protect Canada's detainees.

These revelations cast the detainee issue — which has ensnared Stephen Harper's Conservatives for months — solidly back to the days of the last Liberal government.

2005 transfer pact 'far from perfect'

Neither Pierre Pettigrew, the former Liberal foreign affairs minister, nor Bill Graham, the former Liberal defence minister, would speak Wednesday on an issue that has triggered criticism of Canada's current and previous governments.

In an interview Wednesday on CBC's Power & Politics, Eugene Lang, Graham's former chief of staff, acknowledged that the backdrop to the negotiation of the first detainee transfer agreement was "informed to a degree" by "widespread" concerns over incidents at Abu Ghraib and the lack of transparency at Guantanamo Bay.

He said government officials felt it was appropriate to establish an arrangement with the democratically elected government of Afghanistan. But Lang also acknowledged he and others in the government "knew that the human rights practices of the Afghan government were not going to be like the practices in a country like Canada."

"Let's be clear about that; this is a developing country, a very backward country," Lang said. "We were aware that … there was going to be risks of potential abuse in Afghan prisons and at the hands of the Afghan security forces, which is why we tried to negotiate an agreement.

"And in hindsight, it was far from perfect that put in the safeguards that we thought would be acceptable and appropriate and practical at that point in time."

Laurie Hawn, parliamentary secretary to Defence Minister Peter MacKay, said Lang's comments put some "context" into the reality of operating in Afghanistan.

"Nobody anywhere along the whole path has done anything other than the best they could under very difficult circumstances in a very, very terrible place to operate — not the Liberal government. not our government and not the military," Hawn said.

But NDP MP Jack Harris accused both the Liberals and Conservatives of having a "lackadaisical attitude" toward a serious human-rights concern until it became a problem in the media.

"We're asking Canadian soldiers to go and engage in armed combat," Harris said. "We've got to be ready for that. If we can't do that in the context of international legal obligations, the law of war, we shouldn't be doing that."

Liberals 'have nothing to hide'

Liberal defence critic Ujjal Dosanjh insisted his party has "nothing to hide" and reiterated the Opposition's call for a full public inquiry into the Afghan detainee controversy from 2002 onward.

"We want to be transparent, and learn what mistakes were made, and who knew what and what was hidden from the public, either by the Liberal government or the current Conservative government," Dosanjh said.

In an exclusive interview with CBC News that aired Tuesday, Olexiuk said she told the Liberal government then in power that the existing transfer agreement didn't do enough to protect detainees.

Olexiuk, who arrived in Afghanistan in 2002 and was second-in-command at the Canadian Embassy in Kabul, had also written three different human rights reports over three years, warning that torture was a common problem in Afghanistan.

"It was just known that this is how you get information," she said.

But Lang said he never saw any during his entire time at Defence between 2002 and 2006.

The issue seemed to be dead until mid-2007, when allegations of abuse and torture of detainees transferred by Canadian soldiers into Afghan custody found their way onto the front pages of newspapers across the country.

Within weeks, the Conservative government changed the agreement to include the very suggestions Olexiuk had made back in 2005.

With files from James Cudmore