• Arts
  • December 12, 2009
  • 6 minutes read

Canadian General Now Acknowledges Risk to Afghan Detainees

Canadian General Now Acknowledges Risk to Afghan Detainees

OTTAWA — Canada’s top soldier, in an unexpected contradiction of both the government’s position and his own testimony the previous day, said Wednesday that the country’s military had been aware that prisoners it handed over to Afghan authorities risked being abused.

The acknowledgment by the chief of the defense staff, Gen. Walter J. Natynczyk, was a major embarrassment for the Conservative government, undermining an unusually vigorous campaign by the government against politicians, diplomats and human rights advocates who have contended that Afghan prisoners are in jeopardy after being transferred to their government.

Opposition politicians demanded a public inquiry into the prisoner transfer system and called for the resignation of Peter MacKay, the defense minister, who has largely led the government’s attacks on its critics. Prime Minister Stephen Harper rejected an inquiry and ignored questions in the House of Commons about Mr. MacKay.

Over the past few weeks, the debate over the handling of Afghan prisoners has overshadowed the question of Canada’s military role in Afghanistan.

Canadian forces began turning over prisoners to Afghan authorities after a dispute developed in 2002 over an earlier practice of handing them over to the United States military.

In addition to challenging its critics, the government has used national security laws and court hearings to stall and limit an investigation of the prisoner transfers by the Military Police Complaints Commission.

At a special parliamentary committee hearing on Tuesday, General Natynczyk echoed the government’s argument that there was no credible evidence showing that even a single prisoner had been abused after being placed in Afghan custody. But during a hastily convened news conference on Wednesday, the general withdrew that claim because of a field report from 2006 that he said he had received that morning.

The report describes the circumstances surrounding the arrest of a man suspected of being a member of the Taliban. In one of the selected passages read by General Natynczyk, an unidentified Canadian officer wrote that once the man was detained by Canadian troops, “we then photographed the individual prior to handing him over to ensure that if the Afghan National Police did assault him, as has happened in the past, that we would have a visual record of his condition.”

The man’s case had emerged earlier in the Canadian political debate when it became known that the Canadian military removed him from Afghan police custody after he was severely beaten. But until Wednesday, General Natynczyk and the government said that the man had been arrested by the Afghan military, not Canadian troops. The field report clearly showed that the man was transferred by the Canadian military, the general told reporters.

The prisoner transfer issue flared up last month after a Canadian diplomat who had been in Afghanistan told the parliamentary committee that he had repeatedly warned the government in 2006 and 2007 that detainees were likely to be tortured their transfers. He said that those warnings had been ignored and that he had been told by a senior official to stop putting them in writing.

Mr. MacKay and others in the government dismissed the warnings from the diplomat, Richard Colvin, as not credible and suggested that they were based on propaganda from the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Classified government e-mail messages obtained by The Globe and Mail, however, show that Mr. Colvin acted on information he obtained from the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Michael Ignatieff, the leader of the opposition Liberal Party, was careful on Wednesday not to criticize General Natynczyk or the military, but he said that the reversal underscored the need for an inquiry.

“The issue here is trust,” Mr. Ignatieff told the House of Commons. “We can’t trust this government, we can’t trust a word that comes out of the mouth of this minister.”

By coincidence, Mr. MacKay was previously scheduled to testify before the parliamentary committee on Afghanistan on Wednesday afternoon.

During that session, Mr. MacKay rejected suggestions from opposition members that General Natynczyk’s correction was at odds with the government’s earlier claims.

Ujjal Dosanjh, the defense critic for the Liberals, said that the minister had “allowed prisoners to face a substantial risk of torture.” Mr. MacKay, clearly angry, dismissed Mr. Dosanjh’s remarks as “false, inflammatory and insulting allegations.”