The Harper government's latest effort to derail an independent probe into whether it ordered war prisoners transferred knowing they would probably be tortured was rejected today by the Military Police Complaints Commission.
The ruling means public hearings should begin in the next two months – May 25 has been tentatively set as the start date – unless the government seeks to delay or scrap the probe in federal court.
“For whatever reason, the government remains in denial” over the issue of whether its policy of forcing Canadian troops to quickly transfer Afghans captured on the battlefield resulted in them being abused or tortured, said Paul Champ, the lawyer acting for Amnesty International Canada and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association. The two rights groups filed a complaint with the MPCC nearly two years ago after The Globe and Mail published harrowing accounts of transferred detainees being abused.
“The MPCC recognizes the urgency of the issue even if the government doesn't,” Mr. Champ added.
Allegations of inadequate safeguards to protect transferred detainees from abuse and torture were first published two years ago.
Transferring prisoners to torture is a war crime as set out in the Geneva Conventions.
Although ministers and then chief-of-defence-staff General Rick Hillier initially ordered an internal board of inquiry and promised to co-operate with the independent probe, government lawyers have repeatedly sought to delay it and to thwart public hearings.
The government also added follow-up inspections – something other NATO allies had already done – and subsequently suspended transfers when there was clear evidence that detainees had been tortured, but it has also sought to prevent the MPCC from holding public hearings.
In his ruling, MPCC chairman Peter Tinsley, makes clear his concern over the repeated delays.
“The deployment in Afghanistan is presently set to expire in 2011,” he wrote in a 38-page decision released today. “There is some urgency to completing these Hearings and the report in order to address the allegations” that Canadian military police knew or should have known that transferred detainees would likely be abused or tortured.
“The complaints filed by Amnesty/BCCLA raise issues of pressing public interest and human rights,” Mr. Tinsley said. “There is a significant level of public concern with respect to the allegations and evidence contained in the complaints.”
Transfers of detainees continue. As the Federal Court has already noted, the evidence adduced in that court “clearly establishes the existence of real and very serious concerns” as to the effectiveness of the steps taken by the Canadian Forces to ensure that detainees transferred to Afghan authorities are not mistreated.”
The independent MPCC was created in the wake of the Somalia affair, when elite Canadian soldiers tortured and murdered a captured and bound teenager and the upper echelons of the Canadian military were subsequently faulted for cover-up and command failures.