By Jeff Davis and Jordan Press, Postmedia News
June 23, 2011 – Thousands of pages of newly released documents about Afghan detainees show diplomats were aware of widespread abuse, such as electrocutions, whippings and sleep deprivation, in Afghan prisons where Canada’s detainees were held.
However, the 362 heavily censored documents released Wednesday describe private torture chambers, squalid prisons, rumours of summary executions and officials losing track of Canada’s detainees.
The political fallout continued Thursday, a day after the government released more than 4,000 pages of documents.
Opposition parties are demanding a public inquiry, saying the document dump had not answered key questions.
NDP defence critic Jack Harris chided the government for spending $12 million — the cost of preparing the documents for release — “to suppress the truth.”
“This is clear evidence they knew something was up,” Harris told Postmedia News Thursday.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said the yearlong process culminated with an “unprecedented amount of information” being put before politicians and the public.
“Canadians have got a clear picture that our men and women in uniform fully accepted all of our international obligations and have done a heck of a good job representing this country,” Baird said.
The documents show Canadian diplomats heard allegations of abuse and mistreatment on a regular basis in 2006 and 2007, and were aware of the Afghan National Directorate of Security’s pattern of torture.
Diplomats relayed allegations of torture to senior cabinet ministers in Ottawa, who raised the issue with Afghan authorities. In one document listing “actions on the detainees issue” for 2007, a redacted and summarized portion noted Prime Minister Stephen Harper raised concerns with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Although the exact date of the meeting is not filed, Harper made a surprise visit to Afghanistan on May 22, 2007 and met that day with Karzai. That same day, the two held a joint news conference where Karzai publicly denied any cases of detainee abuse.
An account at the time by the Globe and Mail cited 30 cases of prisoners being abused in Afghan jails.
“We do not have any such case of torture,” Karzai told reporters at the news conference. “So I can tell you . . . that story was not true, as much as it caused news and controversy in Canada.”
During a June 2007 visit to an NDS facility in Kabul, Canadian-transferred detainees told diplomats their bodies and feet had been beaten with cables. One detainee claimed he had been given electric shocks, while another said he had been forced to stand for two days.
Detainees also relayed claims from other prisoners that inmates at the NDS Kandahar facility had their fingers cut and burned with lighters.
In a case that caused Canada to suspend transfers of detainees, one of Canada’s detainees brought a Canadian official to a room where he was interrogated, showed the official a four-inch bruise on his back, and pointed out the “large piece of braided electrical wire” and rubber hose used to beat him.
The documents also show Canadian officials, in those early days in Kandahar, had problems tracking detainees they had transferred.
In June 2007, Canadian officials visited an NDS facility to check on 12 detainees transferred by Canadians. They were surprised to learn that 10 had been released without their knowledge.
Afghan officials criticized Canada for detaining apparently innocent Afghans, and sending them to detention facilities.
In an April 2007 meeting with NDS chief Amrullah Saleh, Canadian officials asked how many of the fewer than 150 detainees transferred by Canada’s regular forces were in fact Taliban, and not innocent local farmers. In response, Saleh said “he simply did not know.”
“Most of those detained by Canadian Forces, he guessed, would subsequently have been released,” the report reads.
Transfers of Canada’s detainees to Afghan authorities restarted after the two nations reached a “Supplementary Agreement,” which granted Canada additional rights of oversight and visitation.
Canadian officials frequently visited prisons unannounced to interview detainees. In some cases, Canadian officials were not allowed to meet with detainees despite the transfer agreement stating they had full access to detainees.
Numerous minor instances of abuse, such as yelling and slapping, continued to occur after this new agreement was reached and concerns were raised with Afghan officials after each incident, federal officials said this week.
During a November 2007 visit to Sarposa prison, one detainee told Canadian officials that “detainees captured by ISAF forces were treated well but those captured by Afghans (sic) authorities are often subjected to ill-treatment.”
When journalists reported allegations of abuse, the documents show diplomats attempted to verify the stories were true. In one case, the documents said allegations of abuse were “misconstrued” in a newspaper article. In another case, diplomats determined an anonymous detainee interviewed for a story made similar claims to Canadians officials. However, verifying the abuse was impossible “without a name from the journalist.”
Included in the documents are memos authored by diplomat Richard Colvin, who raised concerns over torture to his superiors.
Colvin’s secret reports from April 2007, sent to Ottawa’s highest-ranking foreign affairs and security intelligence officials, detailed a meeting held with Karzai’s chief of staff Omar Daoudzai.
“Awareness of detainee mistreatment was discussed,” Colvin wrote. “Such practices would constitute a violation of Afghanistan’s international obligations, as well as Afghan domestic law.”
After visiting Sarposa Prison, Colvin reported he was concerned by the treatment of detainees handed over by Canada.
“Concern expressed about the situation in Kandahar is not the prison itself but overall treatment of detainees, including those transferred to Afghan custody by Canadian forces.”
Colvin described the prison’s general shortcomings, such as guards taking bribes, children of detainees being kept with the general prison population, insufficient water and sanitation and lack of prayer facilities.
The name of Asadullah Khalid, governor of Kandahar from 2005 to 2008, also appears in the documents in relation to claims he personally tortured people in his prison.
“It has been reported by multiple sources that the governor maintains a private detention facility,” the documents read. “It has been reported that Khalid had admitted to keeping detainees there.”
Stories of alleged detainee abuse made their way home to Canada outside of official channels.
A Military Police academy instructor shared anecdotes of abuse in a lecture to trainees. He told his class a story he heard second-hand of Afghan National Army troops dragging a detainee to a grisly death behind a pickup truck.
An investigation was conducted into the incident, which determined the story to be hearsay.