The Hill: Military commission hearing turns into kangaroo court

An old judge whose court I used to attend had a line for those who came before him with lame excuses: “None are so deaf as those who don’t want to hear.”

How about those who say they never heard?
Three years ago, we first learned that Canadian soldiers were turning over captured Taliban prisoners to Afghan police who then tortured them. It was big news in Canada.

The Globe and Mail ran a front-page photo of Canadian soldiers herding their blindfolded and handcuffed prisoners around the wing of a military aircraft. The accompanying article explained the prisoners were going into the custody of the notoriously brutal Afghan police.

Now, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his cabinet ministers are saying they never knew anything about captured Taliban being abused or tortured.

That Harper personally didn’t know is something we can understand. As he claims, he never watches Canadian news, only American TV coverage.

Presumably, the prisoner story didn’t make Fox News. It’s likely Harper doesn’t read the Globe, either. The story kept growing. More reports of torture kept coming out.

By 2007, Harper had a tough time denying the torture reports out of Kandahar. Still, he refuted them categorically, saying it was all Taliban propaganda.

But Harper was careful in his wording. He said Canadian troops had never tortured their prisoners. That was true. No one ever said they had.

Instead, the prisoners were handed to Afghan police. It was they who did the torturing.
That approach is known in Ottawa as the Arar defence: “No, your Honour, we didn’t torture Maher Arar; we just sent him to Syria. They did the torturing.”

The trouble is that such defences don’t wash with the Geneva Convention.
Not all Taliban prisoners were tortured. Some had money to bribe Afghan police and got out soon after to kill more Canadians. Soldiers later recognized some of them on the street.

Still, there was one man who stood proud in all this. Richard Colvin, a diplomat from Ottawa who has refused to be part of the coverup, wants to tell the truth before the Military Police Complaints Commission if only Harper and his government will pay for a lawyer of his choosing.

Colvin arrived in Kandahar in April 2006 as political director of the provincial reconstruction team. He quickly learned what was going on and visited the notorious Sarpoza prison on May 16 of that year.

On May 26, he wrote for his superiors in Ottawa the first of 12 scathing reports calling attention to “serious, imminent, and alarming” treatment of suspected Taliban prisoners. He was thorough.

His 16-page report went to four divisions in Foreign Affairs and to 76 addresses in the Department of National Defence’s chain of command, including the commander of all Canadian troops abroad and the commander of the Canadian military mission in Afghanistan.

Colvin couldn’t have been any more thorough if he had shouted it from the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill. Still, nothing happened.
Now, Harper is saying he never saw any of those reports “at the time.”

The minister of foreign affairs at the time, Peter MacKay, and the former defence minister, Gordon O’Connor, are saying the same thing.

So on June 2, Colvin issued his second report warning about “the risk of torture and/or actual torture of Afghan detainees.”
The message was clear. So was everybody in Ottawa, from the prime minister on down, asleep?

Then Colvin sent another 10 reports back to Ottawa, none of which Harper allegedly saw. Neither MacKay, nor O’Connor or anybody else in the military’s upper echelons got the memos.
Liberal MP Bob Rae, who has been to Kandahar himself, calls it a huge “coverup” implicating the highest levels of government.

Then we have the latest developments, including attempts by government lawyers to try to stop Colvin from testifying before the commission. To allow him to do so could breach national security, they argue.

That’s when commission chairman Peter Tinsley said if Colvin could be barred on those grounds, then “most, if not all other witnesses” could face similar restrictions on testifying. 

Was it a warning to Harper? Did Harper really want an inquiry without witnesses? How would that look?
Harper has since changed his approach. He said Colvin could testify but only if he used a government lawyer.
But Colvin insisted on a lawyer of his own choosing, something that seems to be common in Canada.

You have the right to a lawyer of your own choosing before an inquiry. The Fredy Villanueva case in Montreal settled that earlier this year.

So Colvin hired Lori Bokenfohr. But Harper said the government would pay her legal bills only if she tells Justice Department lawyers who she has been speaking to about the case.

So much for solicitor-client privilege in Harper’s Canada. Would the kangaroos please take their places in the jury box?
No way, Colvin replied. At this point, Tinsley had had enough. He adjourned the hearing for an indefinite period of time.

That suits Harper just fine.
It’s likely the truth will eventually come out when one of the 76 people who received copies of one of the 12 Colvin reports talks to the press.

But that could take a long time. By then, we may be well beyond the next election.

Richard Cleroux is a freelance reporter and columnist on Parliament Hill. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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