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Harper stands by O'Connor as furor grows

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

OTTAWA — Stephen Harper brushed off growing calls Tuesday for his Defence Minister's head and dismissed the furor over the torture of Afghans captured by Canadian soldiers as “allegations of the Taliban.”

The Prime Minister said his officials haven't been able to corroborate the complaints of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, which told The Globe and Mail it cannot do the job the Canadian government has contracted it to do because it cannot follow up on all prisoners captured by Canadian troops.

In addition, Mr. Harper rejected opposition arguments that Canadian soldiers could be committing war crimes for complicity in torture if they continue to transfer people they capture into Afghan custody. Under the Geneva Conventions, Canada must ensure prisoners it transfers to other authorities aren't tortured or abused.

“We do not have evidence that [the torture] is true. And certainly I have to say that to suggest the Canadian Forces would deliberately violate the Geneva Convention, and to make that suggestion solely based on the allegations of the Taliban, I think is the height of irresponsibility.”

Mr. Harper was responding to questions raised in the House of Commons after a Globe and Mail investigation based on interviews with 30 Afghans captured by Canadians uncovered a pattern of torture after the prisoners were handed to Afghan authorities.

While Mr. Harper insists there is no proof the prisoners were tortured, some accounts published in The Globe and Mail were confirmed by the AIHRC, the same organization the Canadian government relies on to monitor the treatment of prisoners that Canadian soldiers capture in Afghanistan.

Opposition parties insist that prisoners must not be handed over to Afghan authorities until the reports of torture are reviewed, to which Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day said that Afghan prisons are slowly improving.

Mr. Day said the problem is that Taliban fighters “have no compunction about machine gunning and mowing down little children, they have no compunction about decapitating or hanging elderly women.”

When Canadian troops catch people suspected of attacks on civilians, he said, it is difficult to persuade Afghan authorities to treat them humanely.

“Now we've captured them and, yes, these people that we've captured want nothing more to do than to kill you and your children. And we're asking you to treat them humanely,” he said in a speech in Quebec City.

“That is a radical thought for a lot of people in that part of the world. But folks, it is working.”

Mr. Day added that Canada could build its own detention centre in Afghanistan, but Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor said he plans to continue relying on the AIHRC to monitor prisoners captured by Canadian soldiers.

“Both the leaders of the Afghan human rights commission in Kabul and in Kandahar have confirmed that they can do what we have asked them to do,” Mr. O'Connor said. “Our people are in constant contact with them and they have not asked for any help.”

The Globe and Mail, however, reported Tuesday that the AIRHC is barred from inspecting prisoners in the cells of the country's feared intelligence service.

In that context, the three opposition parties used Question Period to call for Mr. O'Connor to be fired. Mr. O'Connor is already a favourite target for his past failures to properly explain the government's policy on the transfer of detainees in Afghanistan.

NDP Leader Jack Layton said that Mr. O'Connor is “incompetent” while Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe accused him of “spreading falsehoods.”

Liberal MP Michael Ignatieff added: “There is no conceivable reason to keep this mission under the control of a minister who does not seem to know which way is up. ... Will the Prime Minister stop this sickening charade and fire that Minister of National Defence?”

Mr. Harper, however, expressed confidence in Mr. O'Connor throughout the day.

The Afghanistan mission was the focus of other action in Parliament yesterday as MPs voted on a Liberal Party motion to end combat operations by 2009, which would have had no binding power on the government. The New Democrats sided with the Conservatives to quash the motion and it was defeated 150 votes to 134.

“I think this government wants an open-ended war,” Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion said after the vote.

The New Democratic Party has said it wants Canada to withdraw its troops immediately.

With a report from Rhéal Séguin in Quebec and Alex Dobrota

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