What was known

The Torch unearths and translates an April 2007 story from La Presse.

Canadian diplomats stationed in Kabul warned the former Liberal government in 2003, 2004 and 2005 that torture was commonplace in Afghan prisons. In spite of these warnings, the Martin government signed an agreement with the Karzai government in December 2005 to hand over all Canadian-captured prisoners to Afghan authorities, Foreign Affairs documents obtained by La Presse reveal.

From 2002 to 2005, the Canadian practice regarding Afghan detainees suspected of Taliban ties was to hand them over to US military authorities. Ottawa decided to shift its transfers to Afghan authorities, however, in response to abuse allegations at the Guantánamo Bay internment center and the controversy that erupted over revelations of torture and degradation at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq [“An Afghan ghost of Abu Ghraib?”].

La Presse likens the documents in its possession to annual report disclosed by the Globe two days earlier. The Prime Minister responded to the Globe’s story that afternoon in Question Period. Here is some of that.

Hon. Stéphane Dion (Leader of the Opposition, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, the government was told by its own officials that Afghan detainees face a high risk of torture and extrajudicial executions. However, yesterday the Prime Minister told this House that he had no evidence at all to support these allegations. Why did the Prime Minister hide from Canadians the fact that he had received this damning report?

Right Hon. Stephen Harper (Prime Minister, CPC): Mr. Speaker, the Leader of the Opposition should know that annual reports on governance, democratic development and human rights have been prepared by our embassy in Afghanistan since 2002. They document general concerns and the various actions that the government and its officials are taking to deal with those concerns. We have no evidence of the specific allegations that appeared this week in the The Globe and Mail but, obviously, as I have indicated, we take any such allegations seriously. Officials are working with their Afghan counterparts and, I am told, receiving full cooperation in getting facts.

Hon. Stéphane Dion (Leader of the Opposition, Lib.): I have some questions, Mr. Speaker. Who told foreign affairs officials to release only positive sections of this report? Who told them to black out those sections that warned about these potential abuses? Who told officials to deny the very existence of this report on human rights issues in Afghanistan? Was it the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of National Defence or the Prime Minister?

Right Hon. Stephen Harper (Prime Minister, CPC): Mr. Speaker, I wondered how long it would be until we got the conspiracy theories going but here is the reality. The Leader of the Opposition, who is a former minister of the Crown, knows the process. The process is very simple. When it comes to access to information, these decisions are made by government lawyers. They do not consult politicians or ministers. They act according to the law and their decisions can always be appealed through the Information Commissioner. I have to note that the previous government received reports since 2002 and some of these problems had no policy on detainees until January 2006.

Hon. Stéphane Dion (Leader of the Opposition, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, the Minister of National Defence has repeatedly told this House that the government had no information about any abuse Afghan detainees might have been subjected to. We now have proof that this was not true. The Prime Minister no longer has any choice. Will he finally fire his Minister of National Defence?

Right Hon. Stephen Harper (Prime Minister, CPC): Mr. Speaker, as I have just said and have said on many occasions this week, we have heard these allegations. We always take these allegations seriously. That is not the same thing as assuming that every allegation made by the Taliban is true. We are, however, consulting with our partners in Afghanistan and, so far, we have had full cooperation in finding the facts.

Mr. Michael Ignatieff (Etobicoke—Lakeshore, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, first, there is no proof that these detainees were Taliban and, second, it is impossible to believe the government did not know. We now have a report by officials warning the Conservative government of torture, abuse and murder in those prisons. After first denying the existence of the report, the document was released with disturbing sentences blacked out. Who among the Prime Minister, the Minister of National Defence and the Minister of Foreign Affairs saw the report and, above all, who ordered the cover-up?

Right Hon. Stephen Harper (Prime Minister, CPC): Mr. Speaker, I think I have already answered the question on the process. I suppose the deputy leader of the Liberal Party who has not been in government does not understand the access to information process. As the member knows, this is a general report prepared for the last five years on some of the challenges in Afghanistan and some of the actions taken. I want to quote another section of the report which also said: –judges and prosecutors are being trained, more defendants are receiving legal representation, courthouses and prisons are being built or refurbished and the capacity of the permanent justice institutions has been enhanced. We are not under any illusion about the big challenges in Afghanistan but progress is being made.

Mr. Michael Ignatieff (Etobicoke—Lakeshore, Lib.): Mr. Speaker, the Minister of National Defence has told us repeatedly that the Afghan commission could deal with this issue, but the commission itself admits that it cannot do so. He has told us that the government had no evidence of abuse, but we now know that he had an internal report confirming such abuse. This is a scary tale of incompetence and deceit. When will the Prime Minister assume his responsibilities and dismiss his disgraced minister?

Right Hon. Stephen Harper (Prime Minister, CPC): Mr. Speaker, military leaders in Afghanistan are constantly in contact with their counterparts and with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. So far, they have not indicated to us that they have encountered these problems. Of course, we made it clear that we are there to help to any extent necessary.

Mr. Gilles Duceppe (Laurier—Sainte-Marie, BQ): Mr. Speaker, yesterday the Prime Minister said he did not have any evidence to substantiate the allegations that Afghan prisoners have been tortured. The Minister of National Defence told us a number of times that everything was going very well, while the Minister of Foreign Affairs said he had confidence in the Minister of National Defence. This morning we learn that a report prepared by the Department of Foreign Affairs confirms that executions and torture are commonplace in Afghanistan. The member for Mississauga—Streetsville, special adviser on the Middle East, suggested in a press release that this was part of Afghan culture. How can the Prime Minister minimize such things and be so irresponsible?

Right Hon. Stephen Harper (Prime Minister, CPC): Mr. Speaker, these reports have been prepared annually since 2002. There are many challenges to governance, democracy building and human rights in Afghanistan. This is a general report that also contains the actions taken by the governments in response to these problems. We will continue to work with our departments and agencies to ensure progress.

Mr. Gilles Duceppe (Laurier—Sainte-Marie, BQ): Mr. Speaker, since April 2006, the Bloc Québécois has asked 36 questions about the fate of the Afghan prisoners. Each time we were told falsehoods—the Red Cross, false; the independent human rights commission, false. Now we are being told about senior officials, but this is being minimized: the report is not important. His so called special adviser on the Middle East says this is part of the culture. Does he realize that the reports from these senior officials are causing Canada to violate the Geneva convention? Does he realize the position the Prime Minister is putting Canada in?

Right Hon. Stephen Harper (Prime Minister, CPC): Mr. Speaker, I do not agree that the purpose of this report is to minimize the challenges in Afghanistan. On the contrary, this report admits that there are many challenges to governance, democracy building and human rights. Furthermore, there is a report on the actions taken by the ministers, the departments and the officers in response to these problems, and these efforts continue.