If there is one thing the hysteria over the “detainees” scandal that preoccupied Parliament for most of last winter points to, it is a widespread resolve amongst Canadians to distance ourselves as far as possible from the abuses of executive authority that stained the American record in Iraq and Afghanistan. The names of prisons like Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, and Bagram will remain synonyms for the moral collapse of the leadership of the West.
We tend to forget, though, that Canadian officials are themselves just as keen to be seen upholding the Geneva Convention and the basic principles of due process. That is pretty much why I found myself in southern Afghanistan last week, part of a journalistic foursome touring the buffed-up detainee centre at Kandahar Airfield, and, a day later, the infamous Sarposa prison in Kandahar City itself.
The goal seemed to be to demonstrate the efforts to bring protocols for detainee handling in Afghanistan as close to Canadian standards as possible. The officials who briefed us were keen to emphasize the rigour of the process that new arrivals go through. First they are thoroughly searched, then they shower, are issued new clothes, given a medical exam, and interviewed by an interpreter and fingerprinted. Each step is fully documented and photographed, partly for ass-covering purposes.
The detention facility consists of eight cells each measuring 21 by 33 feet (which, note, is larger than my apartment, although it may be occupied by anywhere from one to four detainees) and including a small bunker where detainees can take cover from the rockets that insurgents routinely fire into the base from the nearby hills. Each detainee gets a cot and blankets, a prayer mat, and books and playing cards. They also get exercise and a shower every day if they want, and—if they are there that long—a weekly phone call or video conference with relatives.
Canada’s goal is to process every detainee for either release or transfer to Afghan authorities within four days. It doesn’t always work out that way, but Canadian officials have to ask for an extension each day that they want to keep someone beyond that period. (The briefing official conceded that one fellow was kept for more than a month, but that was because he was caught transporting what was, even by local standards, “a very large quantity of hash,” and his transfer required complicated negotiations with the Afghan narcotics agency.) Being detained at KAF is certainly no picnic, but a running joke among the Canadians is that the detainees have it better than the Romanian soldiers, whose barracks are right next to the base’s horrific sewage pond.
Eventually, detainees are either released—in which case they are given new clothes, some money, and a ride home—or transferred to Afghan authorities, where they are likely to end up at Sarposa, which sits amidst grape and pomegranate groves on the western edge of the city. The 80-year-old prison has been used as a detention facility by the Americans since the start of the war. In 2008, insurgents drove a gasoline tanker up to the main gate and detonated it; in the ensuing melee, virtually the entire prison population of 1,200 escaped, including 400 Taliban. Since then, Canada has taken the lead in renovating the prison, with officials from Correctional Services Canada tasked with improving its security, infrastructure and inmate treatment procedures. Two years and $5.5 million later, the place is finally within shouting distance of modern standards.
We were escorted there by Terry Hackett, the amiable director of correctional operations with the provincial reconstruction team in Kandahar. He introduced us to the prison’s warden, Afghan Gen. Dastgier Mayar, who was keen to have us meet the residents. As you enter the cell blocks, a sign points to a section for criminals on the left, while the section for “political prisoners,” including insurgents, leads to the right. We were steered deliberately to the left.
Afghan prisoners have no right to privacy, so we barged in on small groups of them reading in the library, taking carpentry classes, and learning to weave textiles. They all cheerfully posed for photographs, including one fellow who stood proudly in front of his commissioned weavings depicting Canada’s regimental colours. With Gen. Mayar out of the room, they said that they were being treated well and had no great complaints. Things are different on the “political” side of the prison, not least of all because that cell block has yet to be renovated. It still has a dank, medieval look despite the cheery lime-green paint job, and the prisoners there were not as keen as the common criminals to come up and chat through the bars. Still, we were told the Red Cross is allowed to show up and inspect any part of the prison without notice, while members of the Afghan media troop through the place on a daily basis.
None of this proves that Afghan detainees are not being mistreated, and leading foreign journalists through Potemkin facilities is a time-tested device of authoritarian regimes. But there is also this: the Canadian people have made it clear that they will not tolerate anything that will in any way involve us in the abuse of detainees. Over in Afghanistan, a small number of dedicated Canadians—military, police, and civilians alike—are risking their careers and reputations making sure of it.