Canadian government rocked by accusations of abuse, torture of Afghan prisoners

by Roger Annis
The Canadian government’s war effort in Afghanistan has been shaken by new accusations that Afghans detained by Canadian forces were tortured and abused.

The charges were made by Richard Colvin, a highly placed diplomat in the Canadian embassy in Kabul during 2005-07, the years when Canada escalated its military role in Afghanistan.

Colvin testified on November 18 before the Canadian Parliament’s Standing Committee on National Defense that he had sent more than 15 reports to his political superiors and the military high command warning that Canadian forces were complicit in the abuse and torture of Afghans it had detained. He said the practice of handing detainees over to Afghan authorities and then turning a blind eye to their treatment not only violated international law, but would also do incalculable damage to Canada’s role in the Afghan war and its reputation among the Afghan people.

“Instead of winning hearts and minds, we caused Kandaharis to fear foreigners,” he said. “Canada’s detainee practices alienated us from the population and strengthened the insurgency.”

Colvin told the committee that virtually all of the scores of Afghans detained by Canadians from 2005-07 were ending up in torture dungeons. Many were not even connected to fighters resisting the foreign military occupation.

“Many were just local people – farmers, truck drivers, tailors, peasants – random human beings in the wrong place at the wrong time. In other words, we detained and handed over for severe torture a lot of innocent people.”

His account echoes concerns expressed at the time by Human Rights Watch, the Independent Afghanistan Human Rights Commission, and others. Even the U.S. State Department in 2006 described continuing evidence of “torture, extrajudicial killings, poor prison conditions, official impunity, prolonged pretrial detention” and other human rights violations at Afghan prisons and detention centers.

Afghan Member of Parliament Malalai Joya confirms Colvin’s account. During a speaking tour across Canada to promote her new book, A Woman Among Warlords, Joya told CBC news on November 24, “What he has been saying is what I’ve heard from my people.”

She says that many of the victims are women and children, and many of those suffered sexual assault. “It’s not new for our people.”

Denial and cover-up

Torture allegations against Canadian forces first surfaced in early 2007 in the national daily Globe and Mail and elsewhere. At the time, the Canadian government and military denied the accusations, but local and international human rights organizations confirmed them. Even the International Committee of the Red Cross, always reluctant to enter into political controversy, denied Ottawa’s claim that Red Cross officials were watching over the conditions of prisoners and could protect them from abuse.

So the government tried a new tack: in May 2007 it announced a deal with Afghan authorities to prevent future torture and abuse, and promising to monitor prisoner treatment closely. (Of note, Canada’s expressed concern about prisoner abuse only applied to detainees turned over by Canadian soldiers).

Colvin’s testimony challenges the effectiveness of that deal. He says Canadian military record keeping was notoriously bad and that a regime of “internal censorship” was imposed on the diplomatic and military mission. Following the 2007 revelations, his superiors discouraged written correspondence as well as any public statements on the deteriorating political and military situation in Afghanistan.

Government, generals hit back

The response of the government and military to Colvin’s testimony has deepened the crisis. In brief, their strategy has been to deny and attack. Defense Minister Peter MacKay, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and other government representatives flooded Parliament and the press with the message that Colvin’s testimony is unreliable and unsubstantiated.

Three of Canada’s top generals who were in command in Afghanistan from 2005-07 also challenged Colvin’s credibility when they appeared before the Standing Committee on November 25. Former chief of defense staff Rick Hillier called Colvin’s accusations “ludicrous.”

Hillier led the Canadian military when it expanded its military role in Afghanistan in November 2005, famously declaring that Canada’s role would be to “kill detestable murderers and scumbags.” In 2006, he described the mission: “We are the Canadian forces, and our job is to be able to kill people.”

The general’s testimony implicitly acknowledged Colvin’s claim that innocent Afghans were being rounded up. He said it was near to impossible for Canadian troops to distinguish Afghans who are “farmers by day and Taliban by night.”

Lawsuit challenges government

Colvin’s testimony might never have taken place if not for a lawsuit initiated by Amnesty International Canada and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association in February 2007. The suit argued that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms must apply to Canada’s prisoner and detainee policy in Afghanistan.

Federal courts, including the Supreme Court of Canada in May, 2009, rejected the suit but the courts did note that Canadian forces in Afghanistan are obliged to obey international law, including the Geneva Conventions on warfare.

The suit succeeded in exposing many documents pertaining to military and diplomatic operations.

The two litigants also initiated a formal complaint to the Military Police Complaints Commission. That process also has pried loose more information, but the government and military have successfully stalled the MPCC’s work, including recently firing its head when his term expired.

There are now calls, including from the opposition New Democratic Party, for a public judicial inquiry into Colvin’s revelations and other torture allegations. The government has resisted, citing concerns over “national security” and the confidentiality of information.

The government has also refused to give the Standing Committee such documentation as e-mail and written reports from Colvin that would corroborate or disprove his testimony and the government’s and military’s rebuttals.

A public inquiry?

The main opposition party in the Parliament, the Liberals, would probably find a public inquiry very uncomfortable and even damaging. After all, it was a Liberal Party government that led Canada into an escalation of the war in Afghanistan in November 2005, and its support for the war has not wavered since it was voted out of office in January 2006.

The Liberals’ leader, Michael Ignatieff, not only supports the war in Afghanistan, but has also supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq and defended the use of torture against enemies of the U.S. empire.

In 2003 Ignatieff, then teaching at Harvard University, published Empire Lite: Nation-Building in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, in which he argued that the United States was a “humanitarian empire” dedicated to human rights and democracy. The book provided intellectual justification for the Bush administration’s use of torture and targeted assassination.

Canada’s military and political leaders are also concerned. A public inquiry could expose them to charges of war crimes. Retired Lieutenant-General Michel Gauthier, who headed oversees deployment for the Canadian military in 2006 and 2007, voiced this concern when he told the Standing Committee on November 25:

“As we were sitting at home watching television, my wife and I were mortified to hear a member of this committee appear on a national news network, name me and three others by name, and state as fact that we had either been negligent or that we had lied – effectively branding us war criminals.”

Two war crimes experts – Payan Akhavan, a professor of international law at McGill University and former prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal at the World Court in The Hague, and Errol Mendes, a professor of constitutional and international law at the University of Ottawa – told CBC Radio’s The Current on November 24 that Canada’s political and military leaders have good reason to be concerned.

There is a precedent for a public inquiry into the Afghanistan war, and it does not bode well for its success or utility. In 1993, the elite paratroop regiment of the Canadian military was accused of human rights atrocities in Somalia, including torture and summary execution of ordinary citizens. The regiment was ultimately disbanded. A public inquiry into its conduct, established in 1994, was summarily cancelled by Liberal Party Prime Minister Jean Chrétien in 1997.

One of the commissioners of that inquiry was Peter Desbarats, a former Dean of the School of Journalism at the University of Western Ontario. He wrote a book on his experience, Somalia Cover-up: A Commissioner’s Journal.

Commenting on the Colvin revelations and fallout on The Current on November 20, Desbarats said, “We haven’t learned anything from Somalia … this is another Somalia-style cover-up.”

Desbarats says he doesn’t have a lot of confidence that a public inquiry will end up any differently than the one that he was part of, and pointed to the only appropriate solution to this political scandal: “We should get out of Afghanistan as soon as possible before it does some real damage to us.”

That’s also the view of Graeme Smith, a correspondent with the Globe and Mail and Canada’s most experienced journalist in Afghanistan. Writing on the news website The Mark on November 12, he said:

“Making the country better doesn’t necessarily require fighting the insurgents – in many cases, it requires working with them.

“Our soldiers have bravely followed orders in Kandahar. But they’re being swept aside by a tidal wave of U.S. forces, and this surge is likely doomed to bring the same results as previous surges. Canada should withdraw its battle group, and push its allies toward peace talks.”

Richard Colvin’s testimony adds a layer of complication onto an Afghanistan situation that is already difficult for the Canadian government. Its U.S. ally is poised for a significant escalation of the war, including as many as 40,000 additional troops, and an expansion of the war into Pakistan.

The Harper government, meanwhile, is saddled with a 2008 parliamentary resolution, adopted for domestic political purposes, that calls for an end to Canada’s military role in Kandahar by 2011, though it implicitly leaves open the possibility of military deployment to elsewhere in the country. The resolution also commits Canada to “a policy of greater transparency with respect to its policy on the taking of and transferring of detainees including a commitment to report on the results of reviews or inspections of Afghan prisons undertaken by Canadian officials.” (For background, see Escalation of Afghanistan War: Canada Faces a Fateful Decision in Socialist Voice, November 17, 2009. )

The latest torture revelations will make it all the more difficult for the Conservative Party government, or a Liberal Party government that might replace it, to sell the Canadian public on any delay or reversal of the 2011 withdrawal commitment.

While a public inquiry into the latest revelations may expose more scandal, it is no substitute for building a sustained antiwar movement that fights for an end to the interlocked wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine. Only such a movement can end these reckless and predatory wars and help create the political conditions needed to end the regimes of permanent war that now rule in all the major capitalist countries of the world.

Roger Annis is an aerospace worker in Vancouver. He can be reached at rogerannis[at] For ongoing news and reports of the situation in Afghanistan, follow the blog of the Vancouver antiwar coalition,

4 thoughts on “Canadian government rocked by accusations of abuse, torture of Afghan prisoners

  1. Lyn Davignon

    Press release
    From the National Non Profit Party of Canada
    When the National Non Profit Party of Canada forms a government we will use all available resources of the Nation to execute the following policy.
    As leader of National Non Profit Party of Canada and acting, on behalf of National Non Profit Party.
    I Lyn Davignon party leader am giving free licence to all, individuals or groups to republish this press release.

    The National Non Profit Party will charge all the politicians who sent Canadian solders to war in Afghanistan with crimes against Humanity.
    The precedent set by the trial of Desire Munyaneza in a Montreal court room. A Rwandan man who was the first person convicted under a Canadian law, allowing people in Canada to be tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed abroad.
    Under the provisions of this law the National Non Profit Party will file criminal charges and crimes against humanity, against all the politicians, Prime Minster and Ministers who voted to send Canadian armed forces to war in Afghanistan. In addition we will file charges against all private corporations and contractors employed by the Canadian government who were involved in crimes against humanity.
    It is our opinion that the politicians are solely responsible for causing the conditions which led to the, torture, death and the brutalization of the people of Afghanistan. Also the destruction of homes, farms, business and attacks on the livelihood, society, cultures and religion of the people of Afghanistan.
    It is our opinion that the politicians to further their political and finical gains sent our soldiers to invade an independent nation. The National Non Profit Party will NOT file any charges against Canadian military personal that are or were involved in the Afghanistan war.

  2. Roger Annis

    November 30

    I listened to the interview with Lewis Mackenzie on November 29 to which reader Doug refers and was interested to hear MacKenzie state that Richard Colvin railed against his confinement to the Kandahar air base during his visit there (2006, can’t recall the month). This, of course, runs counter to attack-dog Christie Blatchford’s rewrite of the history in the Globe and Mail, wherein Colvin was happy to lob critiques of the conduct of Canadian soldiers and officers from within the safe confines of the base.

    A new, independent source confirming a portion of Colvin’s testimony appears in today’s Ottawa Citizen, from none other than the National Directorate of Security of Afghanistan. The full article is here:

    Little evidence detainees linked to Taliban: Report

    By David Pugliese
    The Ottawa Citizen, November 30, 2009

    Officials from Afghanistan’s intelligence agency complained to Canadian military and government representatives on several occasions that troops were detaining people with little evidence linking them to the Taliban, according to records obtained by the Citizen.

    The Canadian government documents detail how agents from the National Directorate of Security, a key Afghan organization involved in the fight against insurgents, raised concerns in spring 2007 that Canadian and NATO soldiers were taking people into custody, but could not provide proof of how they were involved in insurgent activities. As a result, the NDS had been releasing most of those captured.

    Members of a Commons committee recently heard testimony from Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin who said that many of the Afghans detained by Canadian troops were innocent farmers, peasants or people in the “wrong place at the wrong time.”

    Colvin, who dealt with detainee and intelligence issues in Afghanistan, warned that Canada’s detainee policies had alienated Canadian troops from the Afghan population and strengthened the insurgency.

    His view, however, was challenged last week by diplomat David Mulroney, who had been a key player in the Afghan mission. He testified there was “no doubt that the detainees captured by the Canadian Forces posed a real threat to Afghans, and more than that, in some cases, had Canadian blood on their hands.”

    Retired general Rick Hillier also disputed Colvin’s allegations and said that Afghans taken into custody were indeed working for the enemy.

    He told the Commons committee that those detained had actually been caught in the act of trying to kill Canadian troops and had explosive or gunpowder residue on their hands.

    But if that was the case, then that information wasn’t being passed on to the NDS.

    During a May 7, 2007, meeting at the NDS prison in Kandahar, the Afghan intelligence officials complained to a Canadian Forces legal advisor, as well as Foreign Affairs and Correctional Services Canada representatives. “(Names of NDS agents censored from document) complained that they need more detailed charge information when detainees are transferred by Canadian Forces,” the Canadian government report from Kandahar noted. “In the cases the only evidence is (details censored from document) which in the Afghan context is insufficient grounds to hold someone in detention.”

    The report was sent to various Canadian officials including Mulroney, Foreign Affairs, Defence Department and Privy Council Office representatives. Colvin was not included on the list.

    The NDS officials asked that their concerns be passed on to Canadian and NATO troops, according to the report.

    In another report, dated May 15, 2007, Elissa Golberg, Canada’s representative in Kandahar, compiled details about a meeting regarding human rights held with the NDS and the deputy warden of Sarpoza prison. “Concern was expressed about the absence of sufficient evidence from ISAF forces on why detainees were captured and subsequently transferred, resulting in a high rate of release,” she wrote.

    That report was sent to various Foreign Affairs officials including Mulroney as well as to the office of then-foreign affairs minister Peter MacKay.

    Concerns about who Canadian troops were actually capturing was also discussed by Canadian representatives in Kabul and Amrullah Saleh, head of the National Directorate of Security. In an April 2007 meeting, Saleh said he didn’t know how many actual insurgents were among those detainees the Canadian Forces turned over to the NDS.

    Saleh responded that he would have his intelligence analysts look into the issue. But the report also noted that Saleh questioned the intelligence value of those being captured by Canadian troops.

    “He suggested that, in general, conventional forces are not necessarily the best instrument for identifying high-value combatants,” according to the report. “Most of those detained by Cdn forces, he guessed, would subsequently have been released.”

    It was Colvin who wrote that report marked “Detainees: Urgent demarche to NDS chief Amrullah Saleh.” He flagged it for various Canadian officials including Mulroney and Hillier.

    According to Hillier, he seldom read such reports.

    The Defence Department could not say if it changed its criteria for detaining Afghans after the NDS raised its concerns.

    Intelligence specialist Wesley Wark said that the NDS is locked in a vicious battle with the Taliban, with its operatives highly knowledgeable about the insurgency. “If the NDS is releasing people, then the only way to understand that is that the NDS is confident those individuals have absolutely no connection whatsoever to the Taliban,” said Wark, a visiting professor at the University of Ottawa.

    But the only way to adequately determine whether those being detained by Canadians were innocent or not is to review the military files of Afghans taken into custody, he added.

    Those records, however, are considered secret. The Defence Department will not even release information on the number detained by troops over the years.

    Colvin testified at the Commons committee that as of May 2007, Canada had transferred to Afghan authorities six times as many detainees as the British. Estimates based on that information would put the figure at around 580 detainees.

    Amnesty International has suggested as many as 400 were taken into custody by Canada by the end of 2007.

    MacKay, now defence minister, acknowledged that Canada detained more Afghans than other nations but said that “is a tribute to the good work being done by the Canadian Armed Forces in Afghanistan today.”

    Colvin has also alleged that most detainees turned over to the Afghans had been tortured. Hillier, Mulroney and various other officials say that is not the case.

    In response to Colvin’s testimony, the government launched a vigorous attack on the public servant, questioning his credibility and how he did his job in Afghanistan.

    MacKay, MP Cheryl Gallant and Transport Minister John Baird have suggested that Colvin, who was promoted and is now the deputy head of the intelligence liaison office at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, had been duped by the Taliban.

    On Friday in the Commons, Baird, referring to Mulroney’s testimony, said that Canadian troops are not “arbitrarily rounding up farmers and taxi drivers and willingly sending them off to abuse.”
    © Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen

  3. Ernest

    Amazing how you socialist like to take only the side that pleases you without accepting the counter claims in your judment.
    A ridiculous article.
    Graeme Smith – Please!

  4. Doug

    The Globe and Mail’s Christie Blatchford has now written two significant hit jobs (Nov.28 and Nov.30) on Colvin based on the censored Colvin emails which have been leaked to the press (but have yet to find their way, it appears, to the parliamentary committee requesting them). Yesterday, on Cross Country Checkup, Rex Murphy rolled out Lewis Mackenzie who repeated – almost verbatim – the key talking points brought up in Blatchford’s Nov.28 article.

    I think that this hit job is the new aspect of the cover-up after a week or so of flailing by the Tories and military – keep the opposition and public in the dark while a new narrative is constructed based on partial evidence by Blatchford, Mackenzie and the key generals who have testified. The new narrative is that not only did Colvin only go “outside the wire” for only half a day, but that his emails during the period in question. Blatchford and Mackenzie have also repeated this nonsense about Canadian soldiers only arresting those who test positive for gunshot residue (the first the public has heard about this despite three years of controversy on the subject). Blatchford, in her Nov.30 article, is now going so far as arguing that Graeme Smith’s exposé of detainee abuse in April 2007 was in fact what prompted Colvin to “change his tune.”

    It’s telling that Blatchford is the attack dog (and that Mackenzie is trotting out the same line as her). Blatchford is not simply pro-military but was embedded and, I would argue, still is.

    The goal here is to smear Colvin to such an extent that the public forgets that this about the abuse of prisoners and the complete lack of oversight on the CF’s part in tracking the prisoners they’ve handed over. It’s also shifting the issue from prisons to Canada’s troops which the Tories and military know is their major card for rallying the public to their side. If this works, the Tories will step in to argue (again) that the parliamentary committee is smearing the military, and thus undermine public support for a public inquiry. This is why all the evidence demanded by the parliamentary committee is being held up yet selectively leaked to key propagandists like Blatchford and “credible” sources like Mackenzie.

    Notice how the emails were leaked to Blatchford, not Graeme Smith who would have probably done some real investigating.

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