OTTAWA (Reuters) - The Canadian government on Thursday dismissed calls for a public inquiry into allegations senior officials had ignored evidence that Afghan authorities were torturing detainees handed over by Canadian troops.
In testimony on Wednesday, diplomat Richard Colvin said Canada’s detainee practices in 2006 and 2007 were probably illegal and said his superiors had tried to shut him up when he raised the alarm.
Two opposition parties pressed the minority Conservative government for an official public inquiry on Thursday.
But Defense Minister Peter MacKay, describing Colvin’s statements as ridiculous and unsubstantiated, said there was no evidence to back up allegations that Afghans arrested on suspicion of being Taliban members had been tortured.
“What we know ... is that when pressed, when the evidence is put to the test, it simply does not stand up,” he told the House of Commons. “We’re being asked to accept testimony from people who throw acid in the faces of schoolchildren, who blow up buses and civilians in their own country.”
Canada has 2,700 soldiers in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar on a combat mission that is due to end in 2011.
The furor comes at a time when Canadians show signs they are tiring of the mission. So far 133 soldiers have died.
Colvin — who was based in Afghanistan for most of 2006 and 2007 — sent a total of 17 reports to senior Foreign Ministry and National Defense officials, laying out his concerns that prisoners handed over to Afghan authorities by Canadian troops were being abused.
Government ministers insist they were not made aware of any of the reports.
Experts in international law say it is a war crime to hand over prisoners in the knowledge they could be tortured.
Bob Rae of the main official Liberal Party said Colvin’s allegations would undermine Canada’s attempts to improve human rights in countries such as China and Iran.
“It’s very difficult to have integrity and consistency in talking to Tehran and in talking to Beijing if in fact we find that Canadian officials and Canadian ministers refused to listen to hard information with respect to (abuse),” he said.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is due to visit China December 2-6.
Canadian troops began transferring detainees to Afghan authorities in late 2005. Eventually, faced with persistent stories and allegations of abuse, Ottawa signed a deal with Kabul in May 2007 to increase protection for detainees.
Colvin, who alleged the abuses had continued even after that agreement was signed, said many Afghans arrested by the Canadian military were innocent.
MacKay blasted opposition legislators last month after they raised the issue of abuse, saying they were more interested in the rights of Taliban members than in Canada’s troops.
Ottawa University law professor Amir Attaran said the onus was on MacKay to explain how he could not have known about Colvin’s reports. At the time, MacKay was foreign minister.
“How could he avoid seeing something that ... his top civilian on the ground in Afghanistan, on 17 occasions, told him was a problem?” Attaran told CTV.
Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon said the government had acted when it received specific allegations of abuse.
“Nothing has been proven here,” he told reporters on a conference call from Kabul, referring to Colvin’s comments.
Additional reporting by Randall Palmer; Editing by Frank McGurty