Opposition claims cover up in alleged Afghan prison torture

OTTAWA - Detailed, specific, first-hand accounts about the abuse of Canadian-captured Afghan prisoners were in the hands of the Conservative government 48 hours after the first media reports appeared last spring, court records show.

As cabinet ministers downplayed or even denied the existence of the allegations, the government had two reports that prisoners complained they were stepped on, kicked while blindfolded, subjected to electric shocks, or made to stand up for days.

During the first week of the scandal, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day consistently denied any evidence of torture.

Internal government e-mails and situational reports prepared by Canadian officials in Kandahar, released as part of a Federal Court action by Amnesty International and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, show diplomats and investigators spoke to two prisoners, who provided graphic statements on April 25, 2007.

Those claims were forwarded immediately to Ottawa.

The revelation has opposition parties wondering how much the government knew and when it became aware that prisoners, captured by Canadians but handed over to Afghan authorities, were potentially abused in violation of international law.

Published reports on April 23 suggested as many as 30 prisoners had been mistreated by the Afghans.

Two days later, Corrections Canada officers and an official at Canada's provincial reconstruction base conducted a prison visit. Reports were filed that night to both the Foreign Affairs Department and the Correctional Service of Canada.

"To our surprise, even though NDS officers accompanied us throughout the visit, two prisoners came forward with complaints of mistreatment," wrote Gavin Buchan, the political director of the reconstruction base.

On April 26, in response to a question in the House of Commons from deputy Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, Harper described claims of prisoner abuse as "baseless allegations."

Day was also quoted that day as saying: "We have no proof of the allegations."

In the same question period, he described published reports of abuse as "false allegations" and accused the opposition of believing Taliban propaganda.

He conceded Canadian officials had visited Sarposa prison in Kandahar and made only a passing reference to their findings.

"We are concerned about those people," he said, answering a question by Liberal House Leader Ralph Goodale. "Two of the individuals talked to our officials and our officers raised the issue of their being in leg irons. We do not think they should be in leg irons."

Government House Leader Peter Van Loan was even more adamant when he appeared on CTV's Question Period on April 29: "We have yet to see one specific allegation of torture. If they have one, we'd be happy to chase it down."

It wasn't until five days after the reports were filed that Day reluctantly conceded that the leg-iron allegations he had spoken about were more serious and likely involved torture.

"Yes, they have actually talked to detainees about the possibility if they were tortured or not," Day said on April 30, in response to a reporter's question. "They actually had a couple of incidents where detainees said they were."

But Buchan's heavily censored April 25 report showed the torture claims of the inmates were obvious from the start.

One prisoner "went on to state that he had been interrogated by foreigners. He alleged that (censored) beat him and gave electric shocks. He also stated he was bound by his feet and hands and was made to stand for 10 days."

A second inmate complained "he had been kicked and beaten while blindfolded" and that guards "had stepped on his belly."

Out of 19 prisoners viewed during the visit, the report said seven indicated they were captured by Canadian troops.

"When asked about prisoner treatment we did indicate that two inmates had stated they had been tortured," said the nine-page document.

"While we saw no immediate evidence of abuse, matters would require further investigation and/or corroboration. The response regarding the prisoner who stated (censored) had abused him was that he had been questioned by (Afghan National Police)."

Canadian diplomats on the ground pursued the claims, but were told by the Afghan intelligence chief in Kandahar "there was no substance, and that it was a transparent attempt by hard-core Taliban to discredit the government," said an April 30 email.

Liberal defence critic Denis Coderre says the government was evidently eager to accept the explanation of the people accused of torture.

"Franky this was a cover-up," he said Thursday. "This government misled the House. This government lied to the Canadian people."

It remains unclear how much of the reports were shared directly with Harper, Day and other members of the Conservative front bench - even though the government was under daily attacks over published reports of abuse.

Late Thursday, a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier dismissed the criticism as an opposition attempt to grab headlines.

"Since signing this supplementary arrangement, there have been real improvements in the monitoring and tracking of prisoners," said Neil Hrab in an e-mail response.

"The behaviour of the opposition, while sensationalist, is not surprising because they refuse to admit that the process is working."

Hrab's comments did not answer the central question of why the Conservatives chose to deny and downplay the first-hand accounts of possible torture.

The abuse revelations prompted the government to sign a revised prisoner deal with the Afghans, one that allowed Canadian authorities to check on the staus of those captured.

Since last spring seven prisoners have complained about torture, the latest being the most serious case where diplomats saw evidence of physical abuse.

In the Commons on Thursday, Bernier said he has spoken with his Afghan counterpart, who's promised a full investigation.

"Somehow I don't think a phone call is going to cut it," NDP defence critic Dawn Black said.

"The government's policy is to hand over detainees to Afghan authorities and hope they do the best they can."

The sense that the torture claims are part of an insurgent conspiracy still lingers.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay told the Commons that he's sure Coderre has "more questions to pose on behalf of Taliban prisoners."