OTTAWA (Reuters) - In a major embarrassment for the government, Canada’s top soldier unexpectedly revealed on Wednesday that some Canadian troops had known detainees handed over to Afghan authorities could be abused.
The announcement by General Walt Natynczyk effectively swept away the long-held official line that there was no credible evidence prisoners might be harmed.
Legal experts say handing over detainees in the knowledge they could be abused is a war crime.
The opposition Liberal Party demanded a formal inquiry and said Defense Minister Peter MacKay should resign.
The ruling Conservatives, although still ahead of the Liberals, have slipped in recent polls amid intense media coverage of the abuse allegations.
MacKay has repeatedly told the House of Commons there is no evidence that soldiers knew prisoners might be abused. Last month, MacKay and senior officials publicly denigrated a Canadian diplomat based in Afghanistan who said he had repeatedly warned of the risk of torture in 2006 and 2007.
A contrite Natynczyk said on Wednesday he had just received information about an incident in southern Afghanistan in June 2006 that showed soldiers knew what could happen to detainees.
Reading from the field notes written by an officer after troops arrested an Afghan man, he said: “We then photographed the individual prior to handing him over to ensure that if the Afghan National Police did assault him, as has happened in the past, that we would have a visual record of his condition.”
Natynczyk said he would launch a full inquiry to discover why the additional information had only come to light now.
Canada has 2,800 troops in Afghanistan on a combat mission that is due to end in 2011. So far 133 soldiers have died and recent polls show support for the mission is slipping.
MacKay later told a House of Commons committee on Afghanistan that the government had done nothing wrong.
“(We have) never been complicit in torture or any violation of international law by willfully allowing detainees ... to be exposed to abuse,” he said.
In response, Liberal spokesman Ujjal Dosanjh said it was clear Ottawa should have known there was a risk of torture.
“You stand indicted in the court of public opinion of turning a blind eye, of being willfully blind. Ignorance of facts is no defense,” he told MacKay.
Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff said Natynczyk’s comments showed neither the government nor MacKay could be trusted.
“When will the prime minister fire him and call a full independent and public inquiry?” he asked in Parliament.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper brushed off demands for a probe, replying that the military had acted correctly.
“The opposition is accusing our soldiers of committing war crimes,” he said in comments that were partly drowned out by shouts from opposition legislators.
The military has already said the detainee was abused by the Afghan police. Canadian troops later rescued him.
Natynczyk, and government ministers, initially said the man was arrested by Afghan troops taking part in a joint operation and was never in Canadian custody.
“I want to correct my statement ... the individual who was beaten by Afghan police was in fact in Canadian custody and then the (police) took control of him,” said Natynczyk. (With additional reporting by Randall Palmer; editing by Rob Wilson)