Report: Canada abets torture in Afghanistan

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — A diplomatic report revealing that the Canadian government has been aware that Afghan security forces have been torturing prisoners handed over to them by Canadian soldiers has caused outrage across the country.

It all started on April 24 when The Globe and Mail newspaper published interviews with former Afghan prisoners who claim that Afghan intelligence officials subjected them to beatings, whippings with cables, and electric shocks.

The prisoners said they had been turned over to the feared Afghan National Security Directorate (NSD), the country's intelligence agency, by Canadian soldiers.

Initially, the Canadian government denied any knowledge that Afghan security forces were torturing prisoners. The Globe then requested a report compiled by Canadian diplomats in Kabul, Afghanistan, on the human rights situation in the country.

Initially, the government denied the existence of such a report. After the Globe pressed the issue by raising the matter with the federal information commissioner, the government released a heavily censored version of a report titled 'Afghanistan 2006: Good Governance, Democratic Development and Human Rights.'

By comparing the edited version with an uncensored copy the Globe had obtained from an anonymous source, the newspaper found that every single reference addressing torture or abuse by Afghan security forces was blacked out.

For example, the Foreign Affairs Ministry blacked out a sentence in the report's summary, which reads, 'Extrajudicial executions, disappearances, torture and detention without trial are all to common.' Reference to corruption and human rights abuses committed by the Afghan National Police and Ministry of Interior were also blacked out.

Another censured section states, 'The overall human rights situation in Afghanistan deteriorated in 2006.'

Portions of the report painting a rosy picture of the situation in the country were left in place.

Despite previous denials, the report indicates that the Canadian government has been aware all along that Afghan security forces have been torturing and mistreating prisoners. It also puts in doubt the government's claims that it did not know the fate of prisoners handed over to Afghan security forces by Canadian troops.

Despite knowledge of such torture, the Canadian government never ordered Canadian soldiers to stop handing suspects over to Afghanistan’s security services.

Assurances given by the government that the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) would notify Canada if prisoners were being abused also rings hollow. AIHRC has an agreement with the Canadian government to monitor prisoners transferred to Afghan security services. However, according to AIHRC staff members, they have not been able to do their job adequately because they only have five employees to keep watch over all prisoners and the NSD will not allow AIHRC monitors into the prisons they operate.

The Canadian diplomatic report exposing inhumane treatment of prisoners by Afghan security forces is nothing new and echoes reports from the United Nations, the U.S. State Department, the AIHRC and Amnesty International. For instance, the U.S. State Department's annual human rights report for 2006 reports that torture and mistreatment of prisoners is rampant.

The Canadian government's response has been evasive and contradictory. Prime Minister Stephen Harper told Parliament that 'we do not have evidence that [torture] is true,' and insisted that the Taliban were behind the allegations. He also expressed confidence that the Afghan government, which is currently investigating allegations of torture, will resolve the issue. However, Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day said the government is considering opening its own prison in Afghanistan to ensure prisoner safety.

Opposition parties have skewered the government and are calling for Defense Minister Gordon O'Connor's resignation for committing war crimes. Canada is a signature member of the Geneva Convention, which protects war prisoners’ rights. The center-left New Democratic Party proposes that jails in Afghanistan be put under NATO control.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International's Canadian branch and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Union are pursuing a lawsuit, initiated in February, against the federal government in the Supreme Court to stop Canadian soldiers from handing prisoners over to Afghan security forces.

Two human rights professors, Michael Byers of the University of British Columbia and William Schabas, director of the Irish Center for Human Rights in Galway, have asked the International Criminal Court in The Hague to investigate Canada for 'possible war crimes.'

While the Canadian government has cut a new deal with the Afghan government that supposedly ensures greater Canadian monitoring and protection of prisoners, Amnesty International said that the deal was inadequate because torture is widespread.

The conservative Harper government has committed Canada to playing a leading role in propping up the U.S. coalition-installed government of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan. Canada has had 2,300 troops in Kandahar, Afghanistan since 2002, sent by the previous Liberal government.

tpelzer @shaw.ca