The Commons: 'There is no evidence' - Macleans.ca

The Commons: ‘There is no evidence’

Ottawa denies it knew anything about torture in Afghanistan

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The Scene. The Liberals stood and applauded, the Conservatives stood and applauded, and Bob Rae happily motioned for everyone to applaud his presence. A joke was exchanged and then it was immediately to the uncomfortable questions.

“Mr. Speaker, the question I have is for the Minister of State of Foreign Affairs,” Mr. Rae said, eyeing Peter Kent directly. “Richard Colvin, who is a foreign service officer of great distinction, when he went to Kandahar in April of 2006, said that he found the condition of Afghan detainees, and I quote from his affidavit, to be ‘serious, imminent and alarming,’ as a result of which he wrote what he described as an action memorandum to his department, as well as to other departments.”

With that established, the question.

“I would like to ask the minister,” Mr. Rae finished. “Given the fact that it was an action memorandum, why did it take the government 18 months to act?”

Mr. Kent stayed seated, the government instead opting to offer up Defence Minister Peter MacKay. “Mr. Speaker, I thank my honourable colleague for the question,” the Defence Minister began, left hand in pocket to project an attitude of casual ease. “In fact, two and a half years ago we did action this particular file.”

Indeed, the government’s actions on this file in 2007 are the subject of some allegation. But more on that in a moment.

“We received concerns about conditions in Afghan prisons. As a result, we instituted a more robust system of visitation, we instituted investments to improve those conditions, we instituted a more rigorous process of assisting Afghans with respect to human rights,” Mr. MacKay continued. “We inherited an inadequate transfer arrangement that was left in place by the previous government. We improved upon that two and a half years ago and we continue to work both with local officials and members in all departments to improve things.”

So there. Nothing to see. Nothing more to say. If everyone could just move along—oh, drat, here again comes Mr. Rae.

“Mr. Speaker,” Mr. Rae interjected, “Mr. Colvin went on in his affidavit to say, ‘I also obtained firsthand reports of torture and personally saw evidence of injuries related to torture suffered by detainees.’ No matter how much the Minister of National Defence might huff and puff, the simple fact of the matter is that there was an 18-month period, not a month, not six weeks, not eight weeks, 18 months in which the government had information and did nothing and performed no action whatsoever.”

There was a cry of “shame!” from the Liberal side.

“How,” Mr. Rae finished, “can he explain 18 months of inaction dealing with something as serious as firsthand evidence of torture by a Canadian public official?”

Back to Mr. MacKay. “Mr. Speaker, I think we all know here in the House who is doing the huffing and puffing and hyperventilating and pontificating,” the Minister ventured. “It is the member opposite.”

A voice from the Liberal side loudly suggested that Mr. MacKay was perhaps referring to his colleague, John Baird.

Mr. Rae tried once more. “This is a very simple question,” he suggested.

Mr. MacKay asserted that his government had “actioned” this file. “If the bobble-heads and the muppets will just let me answer the question,” he huffed amid catcalls from the Liberal side. Mr. Baird clapped happily at this quip.

Now then to Liberal Ujjal Dosanjh, equipped with the latest bulletin from Canadian Press.

“Mr. Speaker, it is being reported that in 2007 Canadian diplomats were ordered to hold back information in their reports to Ottawa about the torture of Canadian detainees at the hands of Afghan authorities and that the public servants were threatened with sanctions if they did not comply with this order,” he reported. “Who in the government issued this order? Why is the government creating an un-Canadian culture of secrecy and cover-up about an issue as abhorrent as torture?”

Peter Kent would take this one.

“Mr. Speaker, that is an outrageous question,” he said, fiddling mightily with the top button of his jacket. “The previous government did not have any detainee policy. Since our government’s 2007 strengthened agreement on the transfer of detainees, the Department of Foreign Affairs has received no complaints regarding the treatment of transferred prisoners.”

Undaunted, Dosanjh pressed on. “Mr. Speaker, there is abundant evidence that many in government knew about allegations of torture, dating back to May 2006,” he ventured. “There is clear evidence that the government ordered diplomats not to put information in writing about the torture. There is evidence that public servants were threatened if they did not comply with this order. There is also evidence that the government has not been telling the truth about all of this to Canadians. It is time the government leveled with Canadians and told us the truth.”

Mr. Kent stood again, not struggling this time to button his jacket. “Mr. Speaker, the allegations are simply not true,” he said. “There is no evidence.”

Approximately an hour later, a diplomat named Richard Colvin would walk into a committee room in Parliament’s West Block and testify to his own findings and experiences in Afghanistan. Just after 5pm, he finished, having spoken extensively and in pointed terms.

Whatever Mr. MacKay’s assurances and whatever Mr. Kent’s assertions, the questions have perhaps only begun to be asked.

The Stats. Afghanistan, nine questions. The environment, six questions. Government spending, five questions. Nuclear energy and ethics, four questions each. H1N1, Israel and television, two questions each. Trade, air travel and fisheries, one question each.

John Baird, 11 answers. Peter Kent, eight answers. Peter MacKay, six answers. Leona Aglukkaq, three answers. Christian Paradis, Mark Warawa, Denis Lebel and James Moore, two answers each. Gerald Keddy and Gail Shea, one answer each.