Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Afghanistan: torture coverup continues

The Harper government is pressing on with its attempted coverup of Canadian complicity in torture in Afghanistan.

A little history first. In 2007 the story first broke: our troops were handing its prisoners, whoops, "detainees," over to Afghan officials to be tortured and killed. This is in clear violation, if not of the Geneva Conventions (the people involved are not "prisoners of war" but merely "enemy combatants") then certainly of the moral norms of any society pretending to be civilized.

The 2007 revelations were horrific. They included a request from one visiting
Correctional Service of Canada official for better boots, after having to wade through blood and feces in an Afghan dungeon.

The ensuing outcry led to prisoner transfers being halted in November of that year, and finally prompted a Military Police Complaints Commission inquiry, expected to start hearings next month. The Harper government, deeply implicated, has been resisting the inquiry from the start, and with a fair degree of success.

It has already blocked a suit by Amnesty International and the BC Civil Liberties Association on the detainee transfer issue. This past May, the Supreme Court of Canada refused leave to appeal an earlier federal court decision that found that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms do not apply to our "detainees." The current inquiry is really the only hope left for getting to the truth.

The government, which has officially covered for torture in the past, has been using every legal trick at its disposal to prevent an open inquiry into our Afghanistan wrongdoing. The military inquiry was undertaken nearly a year ago: it was supposed to be a wide-ranging investigation, but the Department of Justice went to court seeking to have its scope drastically curtailed. A federal court sided with the government just last week.

But even with the ambit of the inquiry considerably reduced, the Harper regime continues its outrageous stonewalling. Subpoenas have been issued to senior military officials, but the government, through its Department of Justice lawyers, is refusing to permit these witnesses to utter a word at the inquiry.

The question is not whether we were indeed complicit in abuse--we were, as the government's antics amply demonstrate. What Canadians need to know, pronto, is how many were implicated, who they were, and how high up the complicity went.

While the government once claimed that only one instance of prisoner
abuse had been uncovered, its officials have now admitted to the Commission that several investigations were conducted in Kandahar. The lead counsel for the Commission, Freya Kristjanson, became aware of the investigations last year and asked for copies of the reports. She has now been informed--nearly a year later--that the government has not had time to censor them, and will not provide them. Kristjanson was aghast: "I've never seen something like that in all of my life. It seems to me the government has never had any intention of co-operating."

All of this is allegedly being done in the "national interest," but what is truly at stake is the Harper government's self-interest: the two have unfortunately become conflated. But this coverup must end. It's high time, more than two years after the fact, to name and punish the guilty--and
by now, if not at the time, the guilt seems to extend as far as the PMO.

UPDATE: More on the government's torture cover-up here. [H/t Scott Tribe]

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