Documents confirm whistleblower’s emails were sent to then-Foreign Affairs minister Peter MacKay’s office
OTTAWA – The military police watchdog agency agreed Wednesday to release censored versions of Richard Colvin’s emailed warnings on Afghan detainees previously withheld by the government from a parliamentary committee.
The package of Colvin emails, and some government responses, have been censored for national security concerns and much of the content remains heavily blacked out.
However, the package confirms the Star’s report last Wednesday that the emails dated in spring 2006 were sent to then-foreign affairs minister Peter MacKay’s office, and flagged alarm over detainees handling on behalf of the International Red Cross Committee — the world humanitarian organization entrusted by the United Nations to monitor prisoners of war.
MacKay says he wasn’t briefed until May 2007 on Colvin’s emails, but insists there was no "credible" evidence of a real risk of torture to any detainee handed over by Canadians, though his senior Afghan advisor at the time concedes it was widely known that abuses happened in Afghan prisons.
Meanwhile, critics of the government say a move by the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to open a "preliminary examination" of the actions of NATO forces in Afghanistan suggests that the actions of Canadian government officials are now under intense scrutiny.
When news of the torture of detainees first made headlines in April 2007 after a Globe and Mail investigation, law professors Michael Byers and William Schabas wrote a letter of complaint to the chief prosecutor at the international court of justice.
The reply at the time was that the ICC’s prosecution staff would stay apprised of the situation.
But a Wall Street Journal interview this week with chief prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo prompted Byers to conclude Canada is included as part of that NATO force being looked at.
Ocampo said he is looking into "serious allegations" of war crimes against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and against Afghan warlords – "some of whom are connected with members of the government (of Afghanistan)" — and conducting a "preliminary examination" into whether NATO troops, including American soldiers, breached any international laws. "There are different reports about problems with bombings and there are also allegations about torture," Ocampo told the newspaper.
It did not refer to any scrutiny of actions by Canadian government officials or soldiers in the course of transferring detainees into Afghan custody.
"It is logical to assume" the Canadian actions are part of the ICC’s preliminary probe, Byers told the Star, although he has no independent confirmation of that, and said the prosecutor’s activities are confidential.
The Conservative government is under fire in the Commons since testimony two weeks ago by diplomat Richard Colvin, deputy head of intelligence at Canada’s embassy in Washington and an ex-political officer in Afghanistan.
Colvin testified he sent warnings that were ignored to the federal government from May 2006 about the risk of torture to Canadian-transferred prisoners once they were handed over to the Afghan authorities.
It wasn’t until May 2007, a year later, that the federal government acted to change the prisoner transfer agreement to ensure easier and unfettered access to Afghan prisons by Canadian officials.
In a May 26, 2006 memo, Colvin wrote about "inadequate information collection and occasional reporting delays." The result, he reported, was that those charged with monitoring prisoner treatment were "losing track of some Afghan detainees."
"The detainee issue is highly sensitive and we should be making every effort to satisfy the ICRC’s reasonable request," wrote Colvin.
Other media outlets have reported on the redacted content of the emails, prompting Commissioner Peter Tinsley, head of the Military Police Complaints Commission, to conclude Wednesday that despite the government’s formal objections to disclosure, the emails were already "selectively" released and should be more widely publicly available.
Tinsley made the order in response to a request by Amnesty International and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association.
Colvin’s own lawyer Lori Bokenfohr also supported their release, given the federal government’s attack on the diplomat’s credibility and reputation after he testified at a committee.
Tinsley said Colvin should have been able to expect the documents he voluntarily produced would remain confidential, but after they were so widely leaked and publicized, they should now be released so he may take steps to protect his reputation "from being publicly impugned."
The Colvin emails, and some government responses to them, more than 40 records in all, have been reviewed for national security concerns, and the government says it cannot release any more information.
The government had sought to prohibit the release of redacted documents, arguing before the Military Police Complaints Commission that even the release of censored documents would have an impact on other government officials who would not have an opportunity to provide "their side of the story in context" – since the commission’s own hearings are temporarily suspended.
The documents are now available on the website of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association website.
MPs on the special parliamentary committee on Afghanistan are demanding unrestricted access to the documents, and have offered to keep any classified information secret.
The government says it will not order an inquiry, as called for in a vote by a majority of MPs in the Commons.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay said an inquiry would be "unnecessary and a waste of taxpayers’ money. It would be duplication of effort, as we currently have a number of investigations going on into the exact same subject matter."