Prisoners captured by the Canadian military in Afghanistan are once again being transferred to Afghan officials, the Canadian Armed Forces said Friday.

"We exercise discretion each and every time we transfer a detainee," Lt. Col. Grant Dane told reporters in Kandahar on Friday, noting the decision to transfer prisoners was being made on a case-by-case basis.

Both military and government officials in Kandahar say they are satisfied that conditions in Afghan prisons have improved since allegations of abuse were reported in the fall.

"The actions taken by the government of Afghanistan and by Canadian officials in Kandahar to address concerns have been carefully considered," Lt.-Col. Grant Dame, chief of staff for Joint Task Force Afghanistan, said from Kandahar.

"We are satisfied based on the facts that transfers can resume."

However, he would not say whether those currently in Canada's custody would be transferred to Afghan authorities.

Canada stopped transferring suspected insurgents captured in the field over to Afghan authorities on Nov. 6, 2007, on the basis of abuse allegations by detainees. The new policy came one day after Canada received what officials called "credible evidence" a prisoner was abused by his Afghan captors -- the discovery of the rubber hose and electric coil alleged to have been used in the torture.

According to the rules of engagement agreed to by coalition troops in Afghanistan, detainees must be transferred to local authorities or released within 96 hours.

There were reports the Canadian military began holding prisoners at a facility at Kandahar Airfield after the transfers were halted, but the military has not confirmed these details.

Prison system sees improvements

Ron Hoffmann, the deputy head of Canada's embassy in Kabul, said that Afghan authorities investigated the allegation and arrested a senior Afghan official.

Other key Canadian initiatives following the allegations:

  • Canadian officials have conducted more than two dozen visits to the Kandahar detention centre
  • Canada has funded $1.5 million for prison improvements
  • Canada will be providing training on human rights standards to staff at the Kandahar detention facility
  • Record-keeping improvements for all detainees handed over to Afghan authorities

Hoffman the military has been training officials from the branch of the Afghan security forces that manage prisoners, the National Directorate of Security, The Canadian Press reported. He urged caution against getting too comfortable with Canada's role as a prison watchdog.

"It should be emphasized that while Canada is contributing to the above activities, it is not in the business of building or managing corrections facilities in Afghanistan," Hoffmann said. "That is the responsibility of the Afghan government."

Eight other prisoner abuse allegations were investigated but were but were not substantiated, he said.

Citing security concerns, the military did not say when it resumed transferring detainees. However, an Afghan human rights official told the Canadian Press he also first heard about the policy change on Friday, the same day the military made the announcement.

"We always had the perception that withholding detainee transfers was a temporary measure," said Ahmad Fahim Hakim, the deputy chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, noting his agency has an agreement with Canada that it be given access to detainees transferred from Canadian to Afghan custody.

Hakim was confident the improved measures would protect prisoners from further abuse, CP reported.

"We feel that things are falling back like they should be," he said.

Hakim's organization had said it believed about 20 detainees were being held, but the military would not confirm the number or location, saying releasing such details gives too much information to its Taliban opponents.

"I can tell you the military respect their international obligations and make decisions each and every day on operational matters such as this," said Dan Dugas, a spokesperson for Defence Minister Peter MacKay. "Canada's transfer agreement with Afghanistan remains in force and when those responsible for transfers in the military choose to transfer, they continue to have that option when they deem it appropriate."

American forces, however, regularly release such statistics.

Tom Quiggin, Canada's sole court-recognized expert on jihadism, said there will no way to find out if the improvements are working unless we give the new system a try.

"If the process looks like it's been corrected, then let's get it restarted," he told CTV News. "Let's see if the Afghans can get it to work. And again, if it doesn't work, if we start to see signs of them dropping back, then we can cut it off again."

Human rights concerns remain

The prison upgrades aren't enough for two prominent Canadian human rights groups, who say the issues at play are ingrained in the Afghan system and will require more time to fix than a few weeks or months.

Amnesty International Canada and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association said the decision to resume such handovers is premature and are seeking a federal court injunction to ban further transfers.

"Those are positive steps forward but those do not mean we're at a stage where we can confidently say that the risk of torture in Afghan prisons has dissipated," said Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada. "This is a systemic and deep-rooted reality in the Afghan justice system that goes back years and decades.''

It was a similar such injunction request that brought the transfer situation to light in the first place. A federal court case brought forth by Amnesty and the BCCLA attempting to put a stop to the transfers exposed in January that they had already been halted.

The judge who dealt with the case, Federal Court Justice Anne Mactavish, initially ruled against the human rights groups because the transfers had already stopped, but said her ruling could be reviewing if the practice was resumed.

In light of the current events, the detainee issue is set to be back in front of Mactavish on Thursday.

The NDP has also voiced support for halting the transfers.

"There should not be transfers of detainees unless we have iron-clad guarantees that we have torture-free prisons in Afghanistan," Ottawa MP Paul Dewar said during Friday's question period.

With files from The Canadian Press and CTV's Roger Smith