“Canada Handed Over Afghans for Torture” — what is Richard Colvin doing if he isn’t trying to tell the truth?

Nov 20th, 2009 | By | Category: In Brief
Intelligence officer and ex-diplomat Richard Colvin, right, arrives at a commons special committee on Afghanistan hears witnesses on transfer of Afghan detainees on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ont., on Wednesday November 18, 2009. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick.

Intelligence officer and diplomat Richard Colvin at a Canadian House of Commons special committee on Afghanistan, Ottawa, Wednesday November 18, 2009. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick.

The broad Canadian public finally caught up with diplomat Richard Colvin’s story about how “Canada Handed Over Afghans for Torture” this past Wednesday, November 18, when he testified before a Canadian House of Commons committee in Ottawa. But the crux of his testimony has been available since the middle of October, when his affidavit for the hiatus-bound Military Police Complaints Commission was first released.

According to Canwest News: “Colvin was called before a special Commons committee on Afghanistan after he filed an affidavit with the Military Police Complaints Commission, alleging that he first warned senior government officials and military brass of ‘serious, imminent and alarming’ reports of detainee abuse in early 2006 … A commission probe into what the military knew … was put on hold last month … Federal lawyers have sought to block Colvin from testifying at the commission, citing national security concerns.”

On Thursday, November 19, according to the Globe and Mail, “the Harper government tried to undermine the credibility” of Colvin’s committee testimony the day before. “Defence Minister Peter MacKay led the charge during Question Period” in the House, “saying the testimony … can’t be believed … The awkward fact for the Conservatives, however, is Mr. Colvin is otherwise trusted by the Canadian government on sensitive matters. He is currently a senior intelligence officer for Canada in this country’s embassy in the United States.”

Since the release of Mr. Colvin’s affidavit in the middle of October, various interested experts have had a chance to ponder his story. According to Maclean’s magazine: “Wesley Wark … who served on the federal government’s Advisory Council on National Security from 2005 until summer 2009, said he finds key aspects of Colvin’s testimony to a House committee … ‘troubling but doubtful.’” Yet, Mr. Wark went on: “while the Colvin testimony cannot automatically be assumed to represent the whole truth, it is troubling enough that either the MPCC needs to be allowed to continue its work, or the government needs to provide an alternative vehicle to allow for an impartial investigation of the issue of Canadian policy and practice towards Afghan detainees outside the arena of partisan politics.”

Le Devoir in Montreal, which has been following the case since Richard Colvin’s affidavit was made public last month, has published some intriguing reports as well.  According to Canwest News, e.g.: “Colvin also alleged that Rick Hillier, the former defence chief, knew of his reports that Afghan detainees were being abused and he turned his back to it.” Mr. Hillier apparently still denies knowing of Mr. Colvin’s reports until quite recently. But, as Le Devoir explains: “Dans son autobiographie … Rick Hillier …  aborde la délicate question du transfert des détenus afghans. Il affirme que le gouvernement fédéral et les Forces canadiennes ont commencé à se préoccuper des risques de torture dans les prisons afghanes en 2006.”

Canadian troops in Afghanistan, with prisoner, September 2006. (Les Perreaux.) Remember: Mr. Colvin’s allegation is not that any Canadian soldiers tortured anyone — but that we passed (sometimes perhaps quite innocent) prisoners on to Afghan soldiers, who were known to torture.

Canadian troops in Afghanistan, with prisoner, September 2006. (Les Perreaux.) Remember: Mr. Colvin’s allegation is not that any Canadian soldiers tortured anyone — but that we passed (sometimes perhaps quite innocent) prisoners on to Afghan soldiers, who were known to torture.

The opposition parties have urged that some broader public inquiry into Mr. Colvin’s allegations is warranted (as Wesley Wark has also suggested). The Canadian Press has reported: “Harper government rejects call for public inquiry into Afghan prisoner torture.” But, according to the Globe and Mail: “Parliament will delve further into the Colvin testimony next Wednesday [November 25] when a committee probing the Afghan mission hears from military leaders who oversaw operations in 2006 and 2007.”

Will any of this hurt the Harper Conservative minority government, that has lately looked as if it might at last win a majority of seats in Parliament in the next Canadian federal election, whenever it may come? Maybe, maybe not. But it does all feed into continuing nagging doubts about the Afghanistan mission — among various NATO participants, and at a time when President Obama is still struggling to craft a plausible principled response to the US military’s demand for more boots on the ground. The Colvin testimony could cast a shadow on Prime Minister Harper’s upcoming visit to China. And, whatever else, the Conservative minority government’s current stonewalling on the issue does make it seem that it has something to hide.

Richard Colvin, right, testifies beside lawyer Lori Bokenfohr at a House of Commons committee on prisoner abuse on Nov. 18, 2009. SEAN KILPATRICK/THE CANADIAN PRESS.

Richard Colvin, right, testifies beside lawyer Lori Bokenfohr at a House of Commons committee on prisoner abuse on Nov. 18, 2009. SEAN KILPATRICK/THE CANADIAN PRESS.

The most intriguing question at the moment probably does turn around Richard Colvin’s deepest motivations. And that part of the Conservative strategy makes some theoretical sense. But it is just too hyperbolic to imply that Mr. Colvin is ultimately a dupe of the Taliban. Rash rhetoric of this sort points to what is least impressive and even troubling about the Conservative minority government itself. On the assumption that the Canadian people are rather clever, when they finally start paying attention, the longer all this goes on, the worse it will be for Mr. Harper’s highest ambitions. Burying it in some form of complex public inquiry may actually make more sense than what the government appears to be doing now?

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  1. My article is at the following link:

    http://parkavenuegazette.com/Fall_Winter_2009.htm

    -Jim

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