The Harper government knew, but tried to keep secret since last spring, allegations that the governor of Kandahar was personally involved in torture and abuse of detainees.
The allegations against Governor Asadullah Khalid, appointed directly by President Hamid Karzai and a key political partner to Canada's nation-building efforts in southern Afghanistan, were regarded as sufficiently credible that senior officials in Ottawa were immediately informed and Canadian diplomats secretly reported them to the International Red Cross and Afghanistan's main human-rights group.
Government documents detailing the accusations were heavily censored by the government which, claiming national security, blacked out the references to “the governor.” But multiple sources, both inside and outside the government, confirm that the words “the governor” have been censored as have whole passages referring to secret cells allegedly run by Mr. Khalid outside the official prison system.
In Question Period Friday, Conservative MPs did not deny or refute the allegations, choosing instead to dismiss Opposition questions about Mr. Khalid as “histrionics and hyperbole.”
Liberal House Leader Ralph Goodale demanded to know why the government kept the allegation secret and why Defence Minister Peter MacKay, senior commanders and Canadian diplomats continued to deal with Mr. Khalid after the report of torture surfaced.
“This government covered up the most heinous allegations – the spectre of the governor of Kandahar torturing detainees. And the government of Canada, the Prime Minister of Canada, knew about it for almost a year and kept it secret,” Mr. Goodale said.
“Has this government even bothered to investigate the allegations against Mr. Khalid as specifically required under Canada's detainee transfer agreement.”
In response, Conservative House Leader Peter Van Loan accused the Liberals of stalling on the Manley report, while Mr. MacKay accused Mr. Goodale of “histrionics and hyperbole.”
“With respect to Governor Khalid, of course ... I would meet with an individual who is the governor of a province where there are over 2500 Canadians,” Mr. MacKay said. “I met with him, as I met with the President of Afghanistan, and my counterpart, the minister of defence.”
Rumours have long linked Mr. Khalid to secret prisons. That he had close ties with U.S. intelligence agents and special forces had been known since Canadian troops arrived in southern Afghanistan in early 2006. But Ottawa didn't confront an accusation of the governor's direct involvement in the interrogation and torture of prisoners until it sent diplomats to inspect the main secret police prison in Kandahar on April 25, 2007.
“Another prisoner beckoned to us,” begins the crucial passages describing the first inspection of the secret National Directorate of Security police prison in Kandahar city.
The detainee, like others in the secret police jail, was in leg irons, according to the documents. He told the Canadians his name and described how he initially had been imprisoned for nearly a year, most of the time shackled alone in a room in one of the governor's private prisons. “He went on to state he had been interrogated by foreigners and the governor,” said the report by Gavin Buchan, a Canadian diplomat and Linda Garwood-Filbert, the head of the Canadian Corrections team in Afghanistan.
“He alleged that the governor beat him and gave him electric shocks,” Ms. Garwood-Filbert wrote in her inspection report. Eventually the prisoner was moved to the NDS prison where he gave his account to Canadian officials.
Within days, senior Canadian diplomats had passed on the reports to both the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.
Another document, marked “For AIHRC and ICRC eyes only” was used as a briefing note by Canadian diplomats at two meetings in early May.
One meeting was with the International Committee of the Red Cross; the other with the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. When the briefing note was finally made public late last year as part of the government's delivery of documents in the Federal Court case brought by Amnesty International Canada and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, it also had the words “the governor” blacked out, multiple sources have confirmed.
Despite sharing the allegations with the Afghan government and outside agencies, Ottawa kept them from a Canadian Federal Court judge hearing a case brought by Canadian rights groups. It claimed the national security exemption.
Canada began follow-up inspections of detainees it transferred to Afghan custody after The Globe and Mail published a series of stories detailing accounts of torture and how internal documents showed that the government was aware abuse was rife in Afghan prisons.
Another diplomatic cable, dated April 26, the day after that first inspection uncovered the direct allegation, says “Governor Asadullah Khalid, in separate discussions, has noted his surprise and unhappiness at The Globe and Mail.”
It remains unclear whether the allegation of torture against Mr. Khalid has ever been investigated, as is required under the new detainee-transfer agreement.
If there was an investigation, it may be one of the nine, bundled together, that were reported as “groundless” by the secret police in a conversation with Canadian diplomats last month. No details of any investigation were disclosed and the quality of the probes remains in doubt because Canada withholds the name of the accuser in passing along the allegations.
Canadian ministers continue to meet Mr. Khalid, but the Prime Minister broke with usual practice when he went to Kandahar less than a month after a prisoner told the Canadian diplomats that Mr. Khalid had tortured him.
In response to written questions, the government declined to directly confirm that it knew of the allegations against Mr. Khalid. However, when asked if Mr. Harper had raised “the governor's alleged personal involvement in the interrogation of detainee” in his talks with Mr. Karzai, the carefully worded response was: “The Prime Minister, the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and National Defence, as well as Canada's Ambassador to Afghanistan have had a number of frank discussions with President Karzai on a range of issues, including the treatment of detainees.” The government response also pointedly distanced Mr. Harper from Mr. Khalid in the period after April of 2007.
“As stated previously, the Prime Minister has met only briefly with Mr. Khalid in March, 2006, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs has never met Mr. Khalid. The Minister of National Defence raised Canada's concern about the treatment of detainees with Mr. Khalid in November, 2007,” it said.
It also sought to play down the first meeting. “During his first trip to Afghanistan in March, 2006, the Prime Minister was met at the Kandahar airfield briefly by Governor Asadullah Khalid and senior tribal elders. The Governor is the senior ranking government official in Kandahar and, as such, he would greet the Prime Minister upon his arrival in Kandahar.” But that courtesy was omitted in Mr. Harper's May, 2007, visit, after the allegation of torture by the governor was reported to the ICRC by Canada.
Nevertheless, Mr. Khalid remains a key player in Kandahar and senior Canadian commanders and diplomats deal with him weekly. He is a regular visitor to the main Canadian base on Kandahar air field and Brigadier-General Guy Laroche and ambassador Arif Lalani routinely visit the governor's compound.
In Afghanistan's centralized government, governors are directly appointed. Mr. Karzai sent Mr. Khalid to Kandahar, the heartland of the Taliban, as governor in 2005.
Previously, Mr. Khalid had been governor of Ghazni. Mr. Khalid says he fought the Taliban alongside the famous Northern Alliance warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud, killed by al-Qaeda suicide bombers two days before Sept. 11, 2001. Mr. Khalid's age is not clear, although he appears to be in his late 30s or early 40s. According to some reports, he attended Kabul University but dropped out to fight the Taliban.
When The Globe and Mail learned from multiple sources that the governor of Kandahar was alleged to have personally abused detainees, and the Canadian government knew about it, the following written questions were posed to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Foreign Minister Maxime Bernier, Defence Minister Peter MacKay and former defence minister Gordon O'Connor. Mr. Bernier's office responded on their behalf with these answers:
Q: Have the Prime Minister and ministers Bernier and MacKay met with Kandahar Governor Asadullah Khalid in Afghanistan or elsewhere? If so, could you please provide dates and locations and whether the discussion at the meeting(s) involved the treatment of detainees?
A: During his first trip to Afghanistan in March, 2006, the Prime Minister was met at the Kandahar Air Field briefly by Governor Asadullah Khalid and senior tribal elders. The Governor is the senior ranking government official in Kandahar and, as such, he would greet the Prime Minister upon his arrival in Kandahar. Minister Bernier has never met with Governor Khalid in Afghanistan or elsewhere. Minister MacKay has met with Governor Khalid three times in Kandahar during three visits – twice as Minister of Foreign Affairs in May, 2006, and in January, 2007, and once as Minister of National Defence in November, 2007. During the last visit, the Minister of National Defence raised Canada's concern about the treatment of detainees, including allegations of mistreatment in the NDS facility in Kandahar. The minister reiterated Canada's expectation that Afghan authorities will respect their agreement with Canada on the treatment of detainees.
Q: When were the Prime Minister and ministers Bernier and MacKay briefed about the allegations reported to Canadian diplomats and officials on or about April 23, 2007, that Asadullah Khalid was personally involved in the interrogation of detainees and that “the governor” had beaten and administered electric shocks to a detainee?
A: The Prime Minister and ministers Bernier and MacKay are briefed regularly on various aspects of Canada's mission to Afghanistan. Last May, we signed an arrangement with Afghanistan that strengthened the previous Liberal arrangement regarding the transfer of Taliban prisoners. Since signing this supplementary arrangement there have been real improvements in the monitoring and tracking of detainees. Since May, 2007, Canadian officials have visited detention facilities in Kandahar and Kabul on 30 occasions. The arrangement is working.
Q: Was the Prime Minister or ministers Bernier and MacKay briefed on the meeting between Canadian officials and ICRC officials when the allegations about the personal involvement of the Kandahar governor in interrogation of detainees were passed on to the ICRC? When were they told of that meeting?
A: The Prime Minister and ministers Bernier and MacKay are briefed regularly on various aspects of Canada's mission to Afghanistan, including allegations of mistreatment of detainees.
Meetings between Canadian and ICRC officials occur periodically. As is our policy and practice, Canadian officials inform the AIHRC [Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission], the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] and Afghan authorities of any allegations of mistreatment of detainees.
Q: Have the Prime Minister and ministers Bernier and MacKay ever discussed the governor's alleged personal involvement in the interrogation of detainees with Mr. Khalid or Mr. Karzai?
A: The Prime Minister, the ministers of Foreign Affairs and National Defence, as well as Canada's ambassador to Afghanistan have had a number of frank discussions with President Karzai on a range of issues, including the treatment of detainees.
As stated previously, the Prime Minister has met only briefly with Mr. Khalid in March, 2006, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs has never met Mr. Khalid. The Minister of National Defence raised Canada's concern about the treatment of detainees with Mr. Khalid in November, 2007. The minister reiterated Canada's expectation that Afghan authorities will respect their agreement with Canada on the treatment of detainees.
With a report from Brodie Fenlon