Canadians in furor over torture of Afghans

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — A recently released internal Canadian government document confirms that the government has known for some time that Afghanistan’s security forces, which it backs, are mistreating and torturing prisoners. The document has caused a furor across Canada.

A federal judge forced the government to release the heavily censored 1,000-page document on detainee conditions in Afghanistan in the wake of a lawsuit filed by Amnesty International-Canada and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. Both organizations have taken the government to court to stop the Canadian army from handing prisoners over to Afghan security forces.

The report cites the accounts of Canadian diplomats and officials who have visited Afghanistan’s prison system.

Linda Garwood, a member of an inspection team from Correctional Service Canada, asked her superiors for better boots in February 2007 because she was “walking through blood and fecal matter” as the team toured Afghan prisons. No reason is given as to why the floors were covered in blood.

Another passage notes that Muhammad Nadir, the warden at Kandahar’s main prison, had been arrested after being charged with raping juvenile detainees. The prison houses many of the prisoners handed over to Afghan security forces by Canadian soldiers. Police found cosmetics, wine and hashish in Nadir’s office.

An Afghan military judge ruled against prosecuting Nadir for the alleged offenses on the grounds that it was “impossible for a drunken man in his 50s to commit an act of rape,” reported a Canadian official in a cable to Ottawa.

Another part of the report outlines how a Kandahar prison run by the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan’s feared intelligence service, has kept prisoners shackled in leg irons all the time. Some prisoners have been kept that way for more than a year, the report says.

A more recent document in the report ominously states, “There are also indications that Canadians may have been present during questioning of detainees by NDS.” According to U.S. State Department, Amnesty International and others, the NDS tortures prisoners to obtain information.

The documents also reveal that many of the detainees that Canadian soldiers handed over to Afghan security forces have “disappeared.”

In April, the Toronto-based Globe and Mail newspaper published excerpts of government documents that it had obtained that provided the first indication that the Canadian government knew that Afghan security forces tortured and mistreated prisoners. The Foreign Affairs Ministry reported, “Extrajudicial executions, disappearances, torture and detention without trial are all to common.”

Public outcry forced the Canadian government to promise that the country’s military would monitor the well-being of prisoners it hands over to Afghan security forces. But despite its knowledge of continuing abuse and torture in Afghan prisons, the Canadian government has continued to allow such handovers.

The opposition Liberal and New Democratic parties and the Bloc Quebecois in Parliament have condemned the government, demanding that it halt the practice. Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier dismissed their demands, saying, “We’ve never said that there is no challenge. There are always challenges.”

According to a Nov. 13 online report by Amnesty International titled “Afghanistan detainees transferred to torture: ISAF complicity?” detainees in Afghanistan face torture and ill treatment in prison facilities, particularly those run by the NDS.

Amnesty says the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), especially troops from Belgium, the U.K., Canada, the Netherlands and Norway, continue to routinely transfer their prisoners to Afghan security forces where they are “at grave risk of torture and other ill treatment.” The Amnesty report says the ISAF is violating international law, including the UN Convention against Torture.

The Amnesty report also criticizes Canada’s stated intention of checking on detainees it transfers to Afghan security forces as inadequate. “[M]onitoring is a technique to detect torture only after it happens and cannot substitute for prior precautions that prevent torture from happening in the first place,” it says. “As such, monitoring cannot meet Canada’s absolute legal obligation to prevent torture.”

Already, former prisoners have told the Canadians that they had been tortured, the Amnesty report says.

The Conservative Party government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper has committed Canada to playing a leading role in propping up the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who was installed by a U.S.-led coalition. Canada has had 2,300 troops in Afghanistan since 2002.

tpelzer @shaw.ca