OTTAWA (Reuters) - Two former Canadian military commanders denied accusations on Wednesday that they had ignored warnings that Afghan authorities might torture and abuse detainees handed over to them.
The two also said they had moved to tighten monitoring of prisoners once credible reports of abuse finally arrived.
The Conservative government has come under heavy pressure following allegations by a senior diplomat that Canadians had handed over Afghan detainees even after hearing his warnings of abuse -- a war crime if true.
Diplomat Richard Colvin testified last week that he had sent 17 reports to senior officials in the defense and foreign ministries in 2006 and 2007 about the chances of abuse and said he thought most, if not all, of those handed over had been tortured by Afghan officials.
But retired Lieutenant-General Michel Gauthier, who at the time was responsible for deploying Canadian troops abroad, said Colvin had not specifically mentioned the torture risk in his reports until June 2007.
Gauthier told a special House of Commons committee on Afghanistan that although he could not recall having read any of Colvin’s reports at the time, he had looked at them recently.
“I can very safely say there is nothing in any of these 2006 reports that caused any of the subject matter experts on my staff, nor by extension me, to be alerted to either the fact of torture or of a very high risk of torture. Nothing,” Gauthier said.
“Moreover, there was nothing in these documents that would have caused me to speak to the chief of defense staff, nor for him to speak with our minister.”
The government is refusing to release Colvin’s reports in the grounds of national security.
Canada has 2,700 soldiers in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar on a combat mission that is due to end in 2011.
Troops began transferring detainees to Afghan authorities in late 2005. Eventually, faced with newspaper stories and other allegations of abuse in early 2007, the Canadian military temporarily suspended transfers.
Ottawa signed a deal with Kabul in May that year to increase protection for detainees.
Retired General Rick Hillier, who was chief of the defense staff at the time, insisted the military had handled all its detainees professionally.
He backed Gauthier, saying he had seen nothing in any reports to suggest a problem in 2006.
“We didn’t base our actions upon people making statements like all detainees were tortured. How ludicrous a statement is that from any one single individual who really has no knowledge to be able to say something like that,” said Hillier.
“We certainly didn’t see any substantive evidence that would indicate it was that way.”
Government ministers -- who have dismissed calls for a public inquiry into Colvin’s allegations -- say Taliban inmates had duped the diplomat.
Colvin also said Canada’s detainee practices in 2006 and 2007 were probably illegal and said his superiors had tried to shut him up when he raised the alarm.
Defense Minister Peter MacKay, who was foreign minister at the time, has frequently denied seeing the reports.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corp said on Wednesday that at least two of the documents had been sent by e-mail directly to MacKay’s office in late May 2006. One of them cited Red Cross concerns about abuse in Afghan prisons, it said.
No one from MacKay’s office was immediately available for comment.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Rob Wilson