Military police cleared in Afghan detainee transfer report

The Military Police Complaints Commission says there was no wrongdoing by Canadian military police officers in the long-running controversy over the torture of detainees in Afghanistan, but raises troubling questions about the government's interference with the hearing.

Report compares commission process to stonewalled Somalia inquiry

The Military Police Complaints Commission began hearings four years ago into the Canadian Forces' transfer of Afghan prisoners. It issued its final report June 27. (Canadian Press)

The Military Police Complaints Commission says there was no wrongdoing by Canadian military police in the long-running controversy over the torture of detainees in Afghanistan.

The mandate of the commission's inquiry was tightly restricted to the question of whether a small group of eight military police officers had a duty to investigate the risk that detainees handed over to Afghan authorities might be tortured. It's illegal under Canadian law to knowingly transfer prisoners of war into a situation where they'll be tortured. 

The MPCC report was also harshly critical of the government, devoting a chapter of the report to taking the government to task for stonewalling the commission.

The report by commission chair Glenn Stannard and commission member Roy Berlinquette says they and former chair Peter Tinsley ran into repeated problems getting access to documents, evidence and witnesses.

The inquiry cleared the officers, but did not examine the larger question of whether Canadian Forces should have transferred prisoners at all. That issue consumed the previous minority Parliament and provoked lengthy battles over access to government documents.

Somalia inquiry's legacy raised

Just as the spectre of a murdered Somali teenager had loomed over the hearings by the Military Police Complaints Commission into the transfer of Afghan detainees, the commission's chair raised the legacy of the 1990s Somalia inquiry in his final report.

Many of the military witnesses described not wanting a repeat of the mission in the African country, in which a handful of soldiers beat to death a Somali teen.

The Liberal government ended the inquiry into the mission before the commission felt it had completed its work. The commission complained of forged documents, evasive witnesses and outright lies by those testifying.

The MPCC report into the transfer of Afghan detainees says that much of what was written in the Somalia inquiry report could also describe their own hearings.

"It seemed that some of the key lessons from the Somalia experience had not been learned," the report said.

"Both inquiries found it necessary to start their hearings without having obtained complete production of documents. Both subsequently had to call witnesses to explain the delays in document production and related issues."

At one point, the commission wasn't able to get any documents produced for 21 months.

NDP MP Paul Dewar noted the commission was set up in the wake of the Somalia inquiry, which was announced in 1994 and presented its final report in 1997, to ensure some of the same mistakes weren't made.

Dewar says the Conservatives undermined the process from the beginning.

"There's nothing to see here if there's nothing provided," he said.

'Very narrow' report took 5 years

In the report issued Wednesday, the commission concluded that there was reliable evidence that torture did occur in Afghan prisons, notably those run by the Afghan security service, the National Directorate of Security, to whom Canadian troops transferred suspected Taliban prisoners. However, the report says that Canada's military police were entitled to rely on official assurances that the prisons were being monitored to prevent abuses. That, it said, relieved them of a duty to investigate for themselves.

Chris Alexander, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of national defence and a former ambassador to Afghanistan, says he knows as well as anyone that the Afghan system has shortcomings, but the Canadian Forces handed over detainees in accordance with "very good safeguards."

"The substantive conclusion … that matters for Canadians is that their soldiers handed over detainees in a manner that met the highest standards we expected of them," Alexander told Evan Solomon, host of CBC News Network's Power & Politics.

The report comes after more than five years of arguments between the federal government and the two groups that brought the complaint, Amnesty International and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.

"To be blunt, there is no justice here for the many prisoners who were transferred from Canadian custody into the hands of torturers," said Paul Champ, the lawyer for Amnesty and the BCCLA. 

"The commission emphasized that it was only looking at the conduct of eight military police officers who were kept out of the loop and marginalized, and therefore no serious review was conducted about the appropriateness or legality of the transfer decisions. The commission did make it clear that there was significant evidence about the risk of torture to the detainees."

The two groups first complained to the commission in 2007 about the treatment of Afghan detainees as part of the Canadian Forces' mission in Afghanistan. They also filed a challenge in Federal Court.

Following Canada's withdrawal from combat operations in Afghanistan last year, all NATO forces in the country ceased handing prisoners over to Afghan custody because of the risk that such transfers would make NATO complicit in torture.

'Serious information deficits'

The report says the military police weren't good about knowledge transfer, with new rotations of officers coming in knowing nothing about continuing cases.

"To borrow an analogy, it would be unacceptable for the police officers of a local detachment or city police force to change entirely every six months without taking serious measures to transfer the existing knowledge base to the newcomers," the report says.

"And yet, the commission saw repeated examples of MPs [military police officers] coming into theatre with serious information deficits on matters relevant to their policing duties arising during the previous rotation."

The report also pointed out serious communication and reporting problems, including different opinions in the chain of command about what role the military police should play in monitoring detainee conditions in Afghan prisons.

A response in the report from Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Walt Natynczyk says the Canadian Forces have already taken steps to correct those problems.

The commission decided in September 2008 to hold hearings into the issue, but ran into a slow-moving government bureaucracy that made it difficult to get the documents former commission chair Peter Tinsley and current commission chair Glenn Stannard said they needed to run the inquiry.

The commission heard evidence from top military brass, diplomats, military police and the Canadian torture monitor who interviewed prisoners at an infamous National Directorate of Security prison.

Final arguments were made Feb. 3, 2011. The final report was submitted to Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Natynczyk last December for their response.

With files from Terry Milewski