Canada to get access to Afghan detainees: O'Connor
Published Thursday, April 26, 2007 8:32AM EDT
Canada has reached an agreement with Afghan officials to check on the status of detainees, Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor said Wednesday in the face of intense questioning at the House of Commons.
O'Connor told a foreign affairs committee that officials have struck a deal with the governor of Kandahar that will let them visit Afghan detainees handed over by Canadian troops.
Earlier, both he and Prime Minister Stephen Harper rejected suggestions that his government intentionally buried the fact it was aware of allegations that prisoners were being abused in the hands of Afghan authorities.
A report published in Wednesday's Globe and Mail says federal government officials knew that prisoners held by Afghan security forces faced the possibility of abuse and torture and even execution.
Liberal Leader Stephane Dion asked Harper during question period on Wednesday why he withheld the information that he had on received the "damning report."
But Harper insisted his government received no specific reports on possible abuse of captured Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.
The prime minister said the document mentioned in the newspaper is an annual report produced for the Foreign Affairs Department that talks about the general state of the Afghan prison system.
"They document general concerns, they also document the various actions that the government and officials are taking to deal with those concerns ... we have no evidence of specific allegations that appeared this week in The Globe and Mail but obviously ... we take any such allegations seriously," Harper said.
Answering a question in French, he conceded there are "human rights challenges'' in Afghanistan.
Later during question period, Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay admitted that he had not read the embassy report.
"I did not have the report in hand, I have since reviewed the report, having said that of course ... we take these matters extremely seriously," MacKay said.
"I've communicated that to the ambassador from Afghanistan. We've asked that they immediately look into these allegations, that they confirm if in fact this practice was in place, that it cease immediately, that they put officials specifically designed to get to bottom of this."
But Dion is accusing the Harper government of intentionally hiding the fact it was aware of the abuse allegations.
"They release a document about the positiveness of Afghanistan, and they on purpose hide the information that they knew torture was going on," Dion said earlier Wednesday.
Dion called on the federal government to find out where the prisoners are and what kind of treatment they received in the hands of Afghan authorities.
Detainees must not be transferred into Afghan custody until Ottawa can ensure they will be safe, Dion said.
Harper and O'Connor have repeatedly told Commons that they were unaware that insurgents, captured by Canadians, were allegedly abused in Afghan jails.
They have been depending on the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission to report potential violations, but that agency says it hasn't been able to visit some prisons yet.
The abuse revelations were reported by The Globe after the paper obtained a report by Canadian diplomats in Kabul, under an Access to Information request.
However, every reference in the report to abuse or torture in prison was blacked out.
Initially, the federal government denied the existence of the report on prisoner abuses.
After complaints to the Access to Information Commissioner, the heavily censored version of the document was released.
When comparing the released version to unedited portions obtained independently by The Globe, reporters found that some of the blacked-out sentences directly referenced torture. This sentence was among those removed: "Extrajudicial executions, disappearances, torture and detention without trial are all too common."
It also blacked out a sentence that suggested "the overall human rights situation in Afghanistan deteriorated in 2006."
However, it left intact many references to progress being made, "bright spots" and positive developments in the area of human rights in the country.
The report, titled "Afghanistan-2006; Good Governance, Democratic Development and Human Rights" was identified as intended for "Canadian Eyes Only."
It seems to provide evidence from the federal government representatives on the ground that senior officials and ministers knew torture, abuse and disappearances are commonplace in Afghan jails.
The Globe report says the blacked-out sections don't seem to involve national security or privacy issues, and there is no explanation as to why they were removed.
The report makes grim references to rights abuses within the National Directorate of Security, or intelligence police, the Afghanistan National Police and the Ministry of Interior.
Similar claims have already been made in other major reports by Louise Arbour, the UN Human Rights Commissioner, the U.S. State Department and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, among others.
However, when Foreign Affairs was asked by The Globe on March 7 whether it had put together its own report, the response was a definitive 'no.'
On March 22, the department reiterated its response, this time in a written response to an Access to Information request.
An earlier request specific to a human rights report on Afghanistan was filed on Jan. 29 by a University of Ottawa law professor. The edited version of that report was finally released to professor Amir Attaran this week after he complained about Foreign Affairs' refusal to release the report.