Ottawa anticipated Afghan torture allegations: memo

An internal government memo obtained by CBC confirms that Canadian authorities began formulating a plan for dealing with accusations of torture of prisoners in Afghanistan as early as March 2007 — months before such allegations first came up in the media.

An internal government memo obtained by CBC confirms that Canadian authorities began formulating a plan for dealing with accusations of torture of prisoners in Afghanistan as early as March 2007 — months before such allegations first came up in the media. 

The memo, drafted by officials at the Department of Foreign Affairs, instructs staff to inform the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and the Red Cross if "NGOs, relatives, media or otherwise make credible allegations that detainees transferred by CF [Canadian Forces] to Afghan authorities have been potentially abused following their transfer." 

Officials must also "follow up separately to address potential concerns with the conditions of detention," the memo says.

First drafts of the document were written in March 2007, months before the Globe and Mail reported that 30 prisoners handed over to Afghan authorities by the Canadian military were "beaten, whipped, starved, frozen, choked and subjected to electric shocks during interrogations."

The timing of the memo shows the government was concerned about the possibility that detainees were being abused while in Afghan custody long before revelations about actual cases of abuse became public.

The existence of a plan to deal with allegations of abuse came to light in November 2009 during hearings held by the parliamentary committee examining Canada's mission in Afghanistan and the issue of detainee transfer.

The plan was mentioned in the Nov. 26, 2009, testimony of David Mulroney, the former associate deputy minister of foreign affairs who was responsible for co-ordinating intergovernmental efforts in Afghanistan from 2007 to 2009.

"In mid-March [2007], we began detailed work to create a contingency plan — a standard operating procedure — in the event of well-founded allegations of mistreatment," Mulroney, who is now Canada's ambassador to China, told the committee.

"We did this not because of confirmed instances of real and substantial risk of torture or mistreatment of Canadian-transferred detainees but because it was clear that what we had in place at the time could and should be further reinforced. We needed to be far more engaged in terms of monitoring, training, and providing infrastructure and equipment."

Canada changed its detainee policy

Canadian officials did not start monitoring detainees in Afghan custody until May 2007, when a new memorandum of understanding (MOU) was signed with the Afghan government allowing Canadian officials to visit prisons and track detainees who had been transferred there.

Critics suggest that even though the government changed its policy on detainees, little changed on the ground in Afghanistan.

In his own testimony before the Afghanistan committee, Richard Colvin, a senior diplomat with Canada's Afghan mission, suggested that monitoring remained inadequate even after the new agreement with Afghan authorities.

"The first five months of our new detainee regime, monitoring was done by a succession of officers, some of whom were in the field on short visits of only a couple of weeks," Colvin testified in November 2009. "Despite the new MOU … some of our detainees continued to be tortured after they were transferred."

It was Colvin who reinvigorated the debate over Canada's role in the torture of prisoners in Afghanistan with his testimony before the House of Commons committee. The former diplomat told the committee that all detainees transferred by Canadians to Afghan prisons were likely tortured by Afghan officials and that many of the prisoners were innocent.