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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Critics accused the Canadian government of a cover-up Thursday over revelations it had not acted on warnings that Afghan authorities could be abusing detainees handed over by Canadian forces.
The Conservative government regularly dismissed reports of abuse when they first came to light in early 2007, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper accusing his critics of caring more about suspected Taliban members than about Canada's troops.
But an affidavit unveiled at a military police inquiry on Wednesday showed a Canadian diplomat had sent reports about "serious, imminent and alarming" problems with the treatment of detainees in Afghan prisons in May and June 2006.
Government lawyers are trying to prevent the reports from diplomat Richard Colvin being made public and want to block him from appearing at the inquiry.
Ottawa also wants to limit the scope of the probe, which is examining whether military police should have known there was a risk the detainees they handed over could be abused.
"There's no explanation that one can find except that it's a cover-up ... it's almost like an obstruction of justice," said Bob Rae, foreign affairs spokesman for the main opposition Liberal Party.
"It's perfectly clear that, for a long time, the government had the information and made a decision to do nothing with it except to deny any knowledge of it."
Canada has 2,700 soldiers in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar on a mission that is due to end in 2011.
The question of abuse has caused problems in the past for Ottawa. Canadian troops first began transferring detainees to Afghan authorities in late 2005 under the terms of a deal signed by General Rick Hillier, then Canada's top soldier.
Eventually, faced with persistent stories and allegations of abuse, the Canadian government signed an agreement with Kabul in May 2007 to increase protection for detainees.
Jack Harris, defense spokesman for the left-leaning opposition New Democrats, said there had been ample evidence to show that prisoners were being tortured and mistreated.
"They (the government) are trying to hide the details of what they knew and when they knew it," he said.
Dan Dugas, a spokesman for Defense Minister Peter MacKay, did not respond directly when asked why no one had acted on the 2006 warnings from Colvin, who was based in Kandahar. Colvin sent his reports to several dozen top officials.
"This individual's report relates to a period when the former government's transfer agreement was in place," said Dugas. The Conservatives took over from the Liberals after the January 2006 election.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Rob Wilson