January 24, 2008 / 2:15 AM / in 10 years

Canada fights lawsuit on Afghan prisoners: Amnesty

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada has halted the transfer of people detained by its troops in Afghanistan to Afghan authorities because of torture fears, but it is still fighting human rights groups who want to ban the practice, Amnesty International complained on Thursday.

Canada’s minority Conservative government, which ran into serious trouble early last year when allegations of torture first appeared, signed a deal with Kabul in May allowing Canadian officials unlimited access to prisoners.

Since then Ottawa has regularly denied allegations of widespread detainee abuse inside Afghan jails.

But a document released by Amnesty late on Wednesday showed the government stopped the transfers on November 5 last year after receiving evidence that a prisoner had been mistreated.

A Canadian court is due to consider on Thursday an injunction from Amnesty and another rights group that would temporarily stop the transfer of prisoners.

Amnesty said although that Ottawa had frozen the transfers, it was still contesting the injunction.

“They want to continue to be free to resume transfers at any stage and in any way they want to,” said Alex Neve, secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada.

“So we will be in court today with the government maintaining ... the absurd position that ‘Yes, we have stopped transferring prisoners because of concerns about torture.’ But they’ll be saying to the judge ‘Please don’t order us to stop transfers because of concerns about torture’,” Neve told CTV television.

Amnesty and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association have also launched a lawsuit to force a permanent halt to the transfers. That will be heard later this year.

Government officials did not immediately respond to queries as to why Ottawa was contesting the injunction.

Neve said he was pleased to learn of Ottawa’s decision on freezing transfers but questioned why the government had not made it public. Foreign Minister Maxime Bernier made no mention of it when addressing Parliament about detainees on November 14.

The official opposition Liberals accused the government of misleading Parliament and said ministers had repeatedly insulted those who asked questions about abuses.

“Now we learn that the allegations of torture were so credible that the decision had been reached to halt the transfers. That is partisanship of the worst caliber,” said Denis Coderre, the party’s defense spokesman.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s chief spokeswoman did not directly respond to questions as to why the government had kept the move quiet and what Canadian soldiers were doing with any suspects they had detained since November 5.

“These are operational matters, which are the responsibility of the military ... Our policy and agreement (with the Afghan authorities on monitoring prisoners) remain in place,” said Sandra Buckler.

The left-leaning New Democrats said the government’s secrecy made a mockery of frequent pledges made by Harper to increase accountability in politics.

Editing by Peter Galloway

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