Tories open to Afghan records release

Two judges overseeing the release of Afghan detainee documents as demanded by Parliament have decided the documents will remain secret for the rest of the election campaign, CBC News has learned.

Judges' panel says detainee transfer documents won't be released in campaign

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

It comes after the two judges at the centre of the documents screening process sent a letter to the three party leaders involved to inform them the records cannot be released when Parliament is not sitting. 

The documents were supposed to be released by Friday under a deadline imposed by the Bloc Québécois after the party threatened to walk away from the review process. The committee of MPs was waiting for a summary of the most sensitive documents by the judges.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff immediately called on Conservative Leader Stephen Harper and Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe to join him in urging the judges to release their final report as scheduled.

Shortly afterward, Conservative candidate Laurie Hawn, who was a member of the MPs' panel, also encouraged the judges to release the records.

"We are willing to facilitate whatever it takes to release the documents, including amending the agreement if necessary," Hawn told CBC News Thursday evening.

Ignatieff said the Canadian people have a right to see the documents, and noted the Conservatives were forced to come to terms with the opposition parties by a threat of being found in contempt of Parliament.

"Parliament is supreme — not Stephen Harper," he said. "We owe it to the brave men and women serving in our Canadian Forces and to the Canadian public to get to the bottom of this issue and only full and immediate transparency will achieve that."

But Duceppe, the other opposition leader who signed the memorandum of understanding, told CBC News late Thursday afternoon that he had not yet seen the letter from the judges.

The document review is the second report sidelined by the election call, as all parties have 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 judges say they will 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.

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 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.

Compromise deal

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.


Greg Weston was an investigative reporter for CBC News and a regular political commentator on CBC Radio and Television from 2010 to 2015.