OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada released thousands of pages of declassified documents on Wednesday, which it said supported its claims that its soldiers played no role in the mistreatment of prisoners in Afghanistan.
The Conservative government has been dogged for years by allegations that military and political officials ignored evidence that Afghan authorities were torturing detainees handed over by Canadian troops stationed there.
The more than 4,000 pages of documents showed that Canada had met its international obligations on the treatment of prisoners, Foreign Minister John Baird told reporters in Ottawa.
“(The documents show) that the allegations are unfounded and critics’ accusations of Canadian complicity with torture or even war crimes are simply not true,” said Baird, who spoke to reporters before the documents were made public.
But an opposition lawmaker who had access to documents before they were released said the material showed Canadian officials knew there was a huge risk the prisoners they were handing over to Afghan authorities might be mistreated.
“It is impossible to reconcile (the government‘s) statements with the documents,” Liberal Stephane Dion told CBC, saying the documents raised new questions about Canada’s conduct.
Reports of abuse prompted Ottawa to sign a deal with the Afghan government in May 2007 allowing officials unfettered access to any prisoners handed over by Canadian troops to investigate allegations of mistreatment.
International law would have prohibited Canadian forces from turning the prisoners over to Afghan authorities if they knew they were likely to be tortured.
The government, which had initially balked at releasing the documents, again rejected calls for a public inquiry, saying the process had already cost C$12 million ($12.4 million) without finding any credible allegations of wrongdoing.
The documents were reviewed by a parliamentary committee and a panel of judges, who screened them for national security and diplomatic concerns before their public release. Baird did not say how many documents were kept secret on those grounds.
Defense Minister Peter MacKay accused opposition parties of attempting “sensationalize” the issue for political gain.
The main opposition New Democratic Party questioned the timing of the document release, saying it came in a way that meant lawmakers would not be allowed to debate any concerns raised in the material
“It’s a very cynical approach,” NDP leader Jack Layton said.
The document release comes as Canada has begun withdrawing its nearly 2,800 troops from the Kandahar region of southern Afghanistan. Its forces have suffered more than 150 casualties.
Writing by Allan Dowd in Vancouver; editing by Rob Wilson