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Court denies Ottawa's bid to thwart Afghan detainee hearings

Judge derides government's request to stop public probe into allegations Canada put prisoners at risk of torture

Globe and Mail Update

Efforts to thwart public hearings into allegations that Canada knowingly transferred prisoners to likely torturers in Afghanistan were dealt another defeat yesterday by a federal court judge who denied the government's application for an indefinite stay.

“The last thing the government wants is military officers testifying publicly about Afghan detainees and the risk of torture,” said Paul Champ, the lawyer representing rights groups that filed the original complaint with the Military Police Complaints Commission.

MPCC public hearings are scheduled to begin next month, although the government may still seek to have them delayed or cancelled. It says the MPCC has overstepped it mandate.

Amnesty International Canada and the British Columbia Human Rights Commission filed complaints with the MPCC, arguing that Canada's detainee-transfer policy requires military police to turn insurgents captured by Canadian troops over to Afghan security forces despite the Geneva Convention ban on transferring prisoners to torture or abuse.

In asking the court for a stay, the government argued the MPCC probe would be a waste of public money should the commission ultimately be found to be acting beyond its mandate. The government said public hearings could result in damage to the reputation of military officers involved and that military secrets might spill.

Madam Justice Anne Mactavish rejected all three claims, at times in language that bluntly rejected the government's positions. “As I understand it, the Attorney-General's primary concern is that in the heat of cross-examination, a witness before the Commission might blurt out” secret information, she wrote, adding the government itself had called senior military officers to testify in earlier court proceedings on the same issue and “there is no evidence before me that any potentially injurious information has inadvertently been disclosed.”

Mr. Champ said “the court obviously viewed this as a tactic by the government to suppress information about a serious public issue.” Judge Mactavish also rejected the waste-of-public-funds argument.

The MPCC has estimated the cost of the public inquiry at $4-million. In her 23-page ruling, Judge Mactavish said she recognized “the need for restraint in the expenditure of public funds,” but noted that the cost of the inquiry was, according to the rights groups, about five ten-thousandths of Canada's Afghan war costs to date.

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