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PMO told of Afghan jail conditions, Hillier writes

Former Chief of the Defence Staff's memoir contradicts claims by cabinet that it knew nothing about detainee abuse in prisons

Headshot of John Ibbitson

OTTAWA -- Rick Hillier, when he was Chief of the Defence Staff, says he kept his political masters fully informed about the harsh conditions of detainees in Afghan prisons, even though Prime Minister Stephen Harper and cabinet ministers claim they were told nothing.

"It was a sensitive issue, after all," Mr. Hillier writes in his newly published memoir, A Soldier First.

Mr. Hillier's revelations, coupled with the declarations of a Canadian diplomat who was in Afghanistan at the time, contradict cabinet assertions that no one was told about the abuse of detainees in Afghan prisons.

Nonetheless, Defence Minister Peter MacKay insisted yesterday that was the case.

"There are hundreds if not thousands of documents, reporters, memos, advice that come through all departments," Mr. MacKay told reporters outside the House of Commons.

"The fact that one report or a series of reports weren't read by a minister or a deputy minister shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone."

By Spring 2006, as military operations in Kandahar province expanded, Canadian troops started taking an increasing number of prisoners. As previously agreed, the prisoners were transferred into Afghan custody. In Spring 2007, The Globe and Mail reported on allegations of abuse of detainees in Afghan prisons. Mr. Hillier acknowledged that was to be expected.

"Their judicial and prison systems were still somewhat nascent, and there was always some risk that abuse could occur," he wrote.

The military decided to make frequent unannounced visits to Afghan prisons to monitor conditions, but the first visit raised sufficient alarms that "we lost confidence that basic, responsible measures were in place to ensure the humane treatment of prisoners."

The book does not say when the first visit took place or how long the time lag was until the transfers were stopped in December, 2007. The Globe and Mail has reported that the first inspection visit was in May, 2007. Transfers resumed in early January, 2008.

Throughout the process, Mr. Hillier writes, the federal government was kept fully informed of the military's handling of prisoners, which contradicts statements from the Prime Minister's Office.

In early 2008, a spokeswoman for Mr. Harper "had told the media that the Canadian Forces - me, specifically - had not informed the Prime Minister that we had stopped the transfer of detainees from Canadian to Afghan custody," Mr. Hillier says in his book.

In fact, they had been kept fully informed, he stated. "We had made sure everyone knew that we were stopping those transfers - it was a sensitive issue, after all.

"... so there I was, [on vacation] working on my second rum and Coke, being blamed for something that simply wasn't true. I shut off my BlackBerry and had a third drink."

Richard Colvin, a Canadian diplomat who was stationed in Afghanistan, has sworn an affidavit delivered to the Military Police Complaints Commission that he began submitting reports as early as May, 2006, of "serious, imminent and alarming" abuse of prisoners. The Conservative government says no senior official received any credible evidence of abuse until almost a year later.

Liberal defence critic Ujjal Dosanjh maintained yesterday that the government is not telling the truth.

"The fact is there has been an ongoing cover-up, an ongoing neglect of their duty to protect our soldiers," by exposing them to possible prosecution, he told reporters.

"This government has been absolutely negligent and neglectful."

The former general's memoir is laced with anecdotes about disagreements with politicians and bureaucrats. One is particularly poignant.

When the body of Captain Nichola Goddard, the first female soldier killed in combat in Afghanistan, was flown to CFB Trenton, Mr. Hillier relates, an official in the Prime Minister's Office urged that the sight of the coffin being unloaded be kept from the media.

Mr. Hillier says he told then defence minister Gordon O'Conner, "Minister, we ain't gonna do that. It's as simple as that."

With the minister's support, the PMO initiative was turned back. Today, the families of the fallen decide whether they want the media at Trenton or not.

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