Thursday, November 26, 2009

Peter MacKay's Office Got Memos From the Red Cross

I hope Peter Mackay can do better than this is if the torture allegations go to trial, because right now his story is wearing a little thin.

New evidence suggests that he did indeed receive reports from the Red Cross, so if he's suggesting that he didn't read them, then maybe incompetence is the issue. However, that won't fly in this situation, either.

Ignorance is not a reasonable defense.

MacKay's office got Red Cross warnings about Afghan trreatment
Tonda MacCharles Ottawa Bureau
November 26, 2009

OTTAWA–Emails sent to then-foreign affairs minister Peter MacKay's office expressed alarm over the treatment of Afghan detainees on behalf of the International Red Cross Committee – the world humanitarian organization entrusted by the United Nations to monitor prisoners of war, the Star has learned.

Copies of emails seen by the Star indicate that as early as 2006, senior diplomat Richard Colvin was conveying distressing information from the most direct and trusted of sources, the Red Cross, relied on by countries that are signatories to the Geneva Conventions.

The emails were sent a full year before the government changed its prisoner transfer agreement to provide better protections to detainees.

Two emails that reached MacKay's office outlined a litany of Red Cross concerns, including worries about the treatment of detainees, Canadian tardiness in reporting their detention to the international agency, lack of proper information to identify the prisoners and one pointed reminder of Canadian responsibility.

"Canada's responsibility does not cease just because they (prisoners) had been turned over to Afghan authorities," a Red Cross official is quoted as saying in a June 2, 2006, memo by Colvin.

Until now, MacKay and other government ministers have characterized Colvin's testimony before a Commons committee on the detainee issue as "not credible" or as unproven "allegations" based on "lies" by "Taliban prisoners."

Colvin lit the fuse on the scandal over the treatment of Afghan detainees with his charges last week that Canada was transferring them to local authorities who routinely tortured them.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Wednesday the reports amounted to "evaluations of the Afghan prison system based on second- and third-hand evidence."

When the government had "credible" evidence, it acted in 2007 to strike a new deal, the Prime Minister said.

International Red Cross officials' worries about Afghan detainees are contained in at least two key reports sent by Colvin dated May 26, 2006 and June 2, 2006. They were copied to MacKay's ministerial office.

MacKay says he never saw, or was briefed on, any Colvin report until after May 2007.

A former government official with knowledge of government actions at the time, who spoke on condition of anonymity, could not recall reading Colvin's emails specifically. But the official said it was virtually impossible that MacKay wouldn't have been at least briefed about Colvin's emails if they went to the minister's office, "since this was the number one issue for the Tories."

"There were major concerns from multiple sources, different agencies, everyone putting out the same warnings," said the source.

Colvin's emails detailed Red Cross frustrations over Canadian forces' failure to collect enough identifying information and delays in notifying the Red Cross of their transfer, which hampered the job of tracking detainees once they were handed over to Afghan authorities.

The June 2, 2006, email said that a Red Cross official stated: "When things get difficult, some authorities in Afghanistan get tougher and tougher."

Neither email explicitly states the word torture, which may explain why the government insists it was never alerted to "credible" allegations of "torture."

Indeed, the June 2 email says the Red Cross regrets it is unable to discuss the condition of detainees handed over to Afghan custody because that information is "confidential."

The Red Cross has a mandate under the Geneva Conventions to monitor detainees' treatment. But the agency reports directly only to the detaining authority – in this case the Afghan government – not third parties, like Canada. But the Red Cross relied on Canada to inform it of arrests.

Under international law, soldiers cannot hand over enemy combatants knowing they are likely to be tortured.

The Colvin email said the Red Cross was concerned about a "lack of judicial safeguards" with the Canadian transfers, saying it is often unclear who was officially holding them. "All kinds of things are going on," a Red Cross official is quoted as saying.

Although Colvin's reports have not been released publicly, retired Gen. Rick Hillier testified at the Commons committee Wednesday he read them in the past week, after Colvin's testimony before the MPs. He denied having knowledge of them at the time, but dismissed them Wednesday as containing "nothing about abuse, nothing about torture or anything else that would have caught my eye or the attention of others."

Colvin, reached in Washington on Wednesday, declined comment on his reports.

He said since going public in his testimony before the Commons committee, and being tagged with the label "whistleblower" by now-foreign affairs minister Lawrence Cannon, he has "seen no impact on my job in Washington in dealing with the Americans, nor do I expect there to be one."

Detainees were often transferred to Afghan intelligence authorities before being placed at the Kandahar provincial prison, Sarpoza.

The June 2 email says conditions at Sarpoza were deemed not as bad as in other provinces, specifically Uruzgan, where the Dutch were being deployed and were deeply troubled by the Afghan authorities' treatment of prisoners.

The email states Red Cross officials were "cagey" and gave only "roundabout answers" to queries.

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