The Harper government angered parliamentary critics and legal experts during the mounting Afghan detainee scandal last Wednesday, releasing 2,500 pages of heavily censored documents. According to the Globe and Mail, many of the documents were blacked out “beyond comprehension.”
The files were brought to the Commons floor in two cardboard boxes after opposition parties invoked their parliamentary privilege to demand the government produce information of interest in light of revelations that Canadian officials may have been complicit in the torture of detainees turned over to the Afghan National Army (ANA) or the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS).
House speaker Peter Miliken is now deciding whether to find the Conservatives in contempt of Parliament after claims made by the Liberals, the NDP, and the Bloc Québécois that the government violated their parliamentary privilege.
NDP leader Jack Layton called the extent of the documents’ censorship insulting. “It’s slapping Parliament in the face,” he said to the House of Commons.
Many of the files were completely blacked out.
Some parts of the documents left untouched have also raised concerns. One survey of military personnel in Afghanistan reveals cases of Canadian soldiers allegedly beating Afghan captives.
Another document shows evidence that Canadian military police have been intimidated into silence. Reports describe a female military police officer being confronted by “unknown persons” on her way out of the shower and told, “[Military police], mind your own business.” The location of the incident was censored.
The principal claim being made by government critics, however, is that the documents might contain censored information about the transfer of detainees into the custody of the ANA.
Conservatives maintain that it is necessary to redact sensitive military documents for reasons of national security. Justice minister Rob Nicholson said that parliamentary privileges “are not indefinite and not unlimited” during House debate yesterday.
McGill political science professor Catherine Lu agrees that there are security grounds for limiting access to the documents, pointing to the danger uncensored documents could cause for troops on the ground in Afghanistan.
“There is some agreement among political parties that national security is a legitimate ground for denying public access to documents related to Canadian foreign policy,” Lu wrote in an email to The Daily.
“No one wants information to be made public that could make Canadian forces in Afghanistan more vulnerable to harm,” Lu added.
However, she emphasized that she was concerned the government’s decision to censor signals a shift toward greater centralization of power in the Canadian system.
Michel Drapeau, a former colonel in the Canadian army and current law professor at the University of Ottawa, rejected the national security justification out of hand. He invoked the sovereignty of Parliament, saying that parliamentarians “have a right” to see uncensored documents pertaining to the treatment of Afghan detainees.
Drapeau also denied that releasing sensitive documents to Parliament would pose national security risks.
He pointed out that MPs “have already made an oath of allegiance to Queen and country,” and that “there are methods we can use to make sure they have security clearance.” Some MPs already have security clearance as it is, he added.
The detainee scandal dates back to 2005, when the Liberals were still in power. According to the CBC, former Canadian diplomat Eileen Olexiuk “raised the possibility detainees transferred from Canadian to Afghan custody were at risk of torture.” Olexiuk told the CBC she was ignored by the government.
An anonymous government official told the CBC that at that time, the government feared “another Abu Ghraib.”
Two years later, senior military officials warned that the detainees they were putting into Afghan custody were reporting torture, including electrocution, cutting, and being hung for days on end.
Beginning in May 2007, the Harper government mandated Canadian visits to the Afghan detainment centres to ensure that prisoners were not being tortured.
As late as November 2007 Colonel Christian Juneau, deputy commander of Joint Task Force Afghanistan, wrote defence minister Peter McKay and then-chief of the defence staff Rick Hillier to express concerns about the lack of information being relayed to him by those monitoring detainees in Afghan custody, according to the Globe and Mail.
On November 5, 2007, it came to light that a prisoner transferred to the Afghan authorities by Canadians had been severely abused while in Afghan custody. His body bore welts from being beaten with rubber hose and electrical cables.
Juneau cancelled prisoner transfers soon after, and they did not resume until February 2008.
Stephen M. Saideman, a political science professor at McGill who was on a tour of Afghanistan in December 2007, noted the difficult choices facing the Canadian military when dealing with prisoners.
“The choices are few: either turn the captured folks over to the Americans since they have a prison [in Afghanistan]…or turn them over to the Afghans,” he said in an email. “The former is no longer legitimate due to Abu Ghraib, et cetera. The latter is what is supposed to happen, as Canada and NATO are there to support the existing government – the Afghan government.”