Ethics watchdog considers request to revisit probe into Sajjan over detainee abuse inquiry

Parliament's ethics watchdog is now considering whether or not to revisit her earlier decision not to investigate Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan for a conflict of interest violation related to alleged Afghan detainee abuse.

Defence minister says he skipped fundraising event for veterans to prepare for policy speech

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan speaks with the media after delivering a speech to the Conference of Defence Associations Institute in Ottawa on Wednesday. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Parliament's ethics watchdog is considering whether to revisit her earlier decision not to investigate Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan for a possible conflict of interest violation related to alleged Afghan detainee abuse.

Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson revealed her position in a written response to NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, who on Tuesday had asked the watchdog to reconsider her decision not to investigate Sajjan.

"I am writing to acknowledge receipt of your letter dated May 2, 2017," Dawson said in the letter. "Please note that I am reviewing your request."

Jordan Owens, a spokesperson for Sajjan, said "Minister Sajjan is happy to meet with any officer of Parliament at any time."

The alleged Afghan detainee abuse, and how it relates to Sajjan, has been an issue for the past year, but has roots much farther back than that.

While in opposition, the Liberals pushed the Conservative government to hold an inquiry into the treatment of Taliban prisoners, who human rights groups claim were being tortured by Afghan officials.

When the Liberals came to power after the 2015 election, and no inquiry was called, former New Democrat MP Craig Scott spearheaded an e-petition last spring calling on the Liberals to act.

Sajjan, responding on behalf of the government, turned down the plea. At the time, he said the matter had been investigated by the Military Police Complaints Commission and that Canada had obeyed international law.

That response prompted Scott, who lost his seat in the last election and has since returned to teaching at York University in Toronto, to write Dawson asking her to investigate whether Sajjan had violated the Conflict of Interest Act.

'Honesty and forthrightness'

Scott argued that because Sajjan acted as a liaison officer between the Afghan National Police and the Combined Task Force, he would likely have been called to testify and was therefore in a conflict of interest when he declined to hold the inquiry.

Dawson did not launch an investigation, but she did speak with Sajjan and said she was satisfied the defence minister had no knowledge of alleged Afghan detainee abuse.

On Tuesday Mulcair wrote to Dawson arguing that since Sajjan had overstated the importance of his role in Operation Medusa, one of the biggest battles Canadian troops fought during the Afghan war, the minister's "truthfulness" had been called in question.

"These revelations seriously call into question the minister's honesty and forthrightness with respect to his role, and what information he had access to throughout his time in Afghanistan," Mulcair said in the letter.

Canadian Brig.-Gen. Dean Milner, left, points as U.S. Maj.-Gen. James Terry and Harjit Sajjan look on in this 2010 photo. Lt.-Col. Sajjan was serving his third tour in Afghanistan at the time and was serving as adviser to Terry. (Murray Brewster/CBC)

Mulcair further states that since Sajjan did have a significant role in Canada's deployment to Afghanistan it is "simply not plausible" that he did not know what was going on with Afghan detainees.

The NDP pressed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the issue in question period Wednesday, to which he responded, "We know that the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner has decided that particular file is closed."

Wednesday's letter appears to suggest Dawson's decision to close Sajjan's file may not be final.

Veterans dinner skipped

Trudeau was also questioned over Sajjan's decision to bow out of an annual fundraising event Tuesday evening originally set up for veterans of the war in Afghanistan, an event whose main beneficiaries include military personnel returning from combat.

Sajjan told The Canadian Press he skipped the dinner to prepare for a speech Wednesday about defence spending to the Conference of Defence Associations Institute.

Sajjan said he could have gone to the event and tried to make amends for incorrectly calling himself the architect of a major battle in Afghanistan, but he's going to be judged as a minister by the outcome of the defence policy review.

The minister told The Canadian Press that getting the speech right was important, and his time has been tied up in recent days by what he called "other things."

Among those things are days of sustained criticism for referring to himself last month, and in 2015, as the architect of Operation Medusa. In 2015, Sajjan told an interviewer that Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jon Vance had described him that way, but on Wednesday he refused to repeat the assertion.

With files from The Canadian Press