Thursday, January 7, 2010

Oh Mr. Harper ... Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are

Journalist Kate Heartfield wrote a great piece in the Ottawa Citizen that I wanted to share.

If the Reformers are hoping a two month vacation will cool our jets, and the whole war crimes thing will go away, they are sadly mistaken.

Not everyone we are fighting in Afghanistan are terrorists. In fact, I would be willing to bet that less than 5% of them are 'terrorists'.

And many of the detainees were simple farmers or villagers in the wrong place at the wrong time, or forced to take up arms against what they see as an invading force ... us. It's that simple.

I know Harper hired Ari Fleischer to help craft the message, but in case he didn't get the memo (unredacted), Fleischer lost his bid to keep George Bush's dirty little secrets, secret. Maybe he needs another Bush flunkie to try and save his butt.

A little tip: After reading an article on-line, try to post a comment at the end. Some like the Globe and Mail and Star have you pre-register, but you only need to give them your email, and they don't publish it. You can create a user name for privacy sake. It just helps to start the conversation, or sometimes steer it away from the usual 'left' this and 'left' that.

It doesn't have to be long but just gives the editors some idea of how Canadians are thinking. I have also found that sometimes when I offer an alternative voice, others who were too afraid of being shouted down (not literally ... typed down?), will come forward, and before long you have a conversation.

If we really want to reclaim democracy we've got to get people engaged. Apathy is no longer an option.

The government can't hide forever
By Kate Heartfield,
The Ottawa Citizen
January 7, 2010

Conservative spokesman Dimitri Soudas, who apparently runs the federal government now, said mockingly last week that the Opposition could spend its time between now and the next Parliament on March 3 talking about "Taliban terrorists" if it wanted to.

As for the government MPs, they are all spending the next two months diligently crunching the numbers for the next federal budget. (I assume this means the government has eliminated the Department of Finance Canada, as a deficit-cutting measure.) When they aren't doing that, they'll be watching the Olympics.

This leaves us journalists with a bit of a dilemma in the interim. Which activity do we cover? Since I'm no math whiz, I guess I'll talk about Taliban terrorists.

The people Soudas means are the Afghans that Canadian troops round up and hand over to Afghan authorities. He's banking on the assumption that if Canadians think these prisoners are all terrorists, Canadians will be just fine with our government handing them over to be tortured.

Perhaps Soudas is right, and we despise torture only when innocent Canadian citizens are on the receiving end (and even then, as Maher Arar can attest, we're slow to get worked up.) But shouldn't we care as much, or more, when Canadian citizens are the ones doing the legwork for the torturers? Many apologists for the Canadian government have said that this debate is about what Afghans do to other Afghans, and therefore unworthy of Canadian attention. But the Afghan authorities wouldn't have their hands on these guys if Canadian troops hadn't rounded them up.

So it is our duty, as Canadians, to ask a few questions about the guys Canadian forces are rounding up. Starting with: Are we really sure they're all "Taliban terrorists"?

Diplomat Richard Colvin -- whose credibility continues to stand impressively firm despite the government's best efforts to destroy it -- isn't convinced they are. And he's not the only one.

This summer, Gen. David Petraeus sent Maj. Gen. Douglas M. Stone to Afghanistan to take a hard look at the detainees there. Stone, who is a grim-visaged marine, not a soft-hearted Taliban-lover, found that of the 600 detainees at the Bagram air base, 400 of them posed no danger and should be set free immediately. Some had been held for years without trial despite the fact that there was little evidence against them.

If two-thirds of American detainees at Bagram, as recently as this summer, shouldn't have been there at all, is it really that far-fetched to question whether Canada has handed over -- or is handing over -- anyone who isn't a "Taliban terrorist"? Isn't it possible, given the environment there, that some detainees are ending up in Canadian, then Afghan, custody because they're in the wrong place at the wrong time and look suspicious?

I don't have a definitive answer to this question, and neither do you. If it turns out that innocent Afghans were or are being collected by Canadians and handed over for torture, that might not matter to you. But you have the right to know. It's happening in your name.

When the government refuses to provide answers to the Opposition or the media, it's refusing to provide answers to you, the Canadian citizen. Opposition MPs and journalists are paid to ask the questions most people don't have the time or resources to ask.

So yes, I'm still asking questions about Taliban terrorists, and about the shadowy masses of Afghan detainees who might or might not be Taliban terrorists, and about the government's refusal to provide information to Parliament. If the Opposition MPs have any sense of duty to the Canadian public, they'll keep asking about it too, whether Parliament's prorogued or not.

The sad fact is, though, that not all Opposition MPs seem to have much interest in keeping the issue alive. Michael Ignatieff seems to have been spooked into paralysis by his last attempt to stare down the government. Perhaps Bob Rae, who's been very impressive on the detainee file, will fill the leadership gap. Perhaps not. (Actually, neither Michael Ignatieff nor Bob Rae have stopped talking about. Mr. Ignatieff starts his touring, where he'll speak across the country and they have already acknowledged that they will be returning to work as scheduled on January 25. Bob Rae as critic will lead the discussion on the Detainee file)

Torture isn't a left-right issue, and Conservatives are doing their side a disservice by trying to turn it into one -- and by picking the wrong side to boot. But not every Conservative hides behind the smarmy language so beloved of Soudas, Peter MacKay and John Baird.

Senator Hugh Segal, as he attempted on CBC radio last week to defend the prorogation, acknowledged at least that it's valid for MPs of all parties to keep discussing the detainee issue. I bet there are many intelligent, decent, fair-minded Conservative MPs who think so too. If only they were allowed to speak.

(Kate Heartfield is a member of the Citizen's editorial board)

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