Commons committee meets to discuss Afghan detainee controversy despite Tory boycott

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OTTAWA - Opposition parties aren't letting Christmas wassailing or Conservative stonewalling get in the way of their pursuit of the Afghan detainee controversy.
Liberal, NDP and Bloc Quebecois MPs barrelled ahead Tuesday with a meeting of a special Commons committee on Afghanistan, despite a boycott by Conservative MPs.
Lack of quorum forced them to meet informally but they still managed to keep the issue alive, hearing testimony from two key critics of the Harper government's handling of the detainee file.
They heard from Paul Champ, lawyer for Amnesty International and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, which jointly went to court in an unsuccessful bid to secure an injunction halting the Canadian transfer of detainees to Afghan prisons.
They also heard from Gar Pardy, a retired diplomat who recently organized a letter from more than 100 former ambassadors blasting the Harper government's treatment of diplomat whistleblower Richard Colvin, who says he warned the government in 2006 about the likely torture of prisoners handed over by Canadian soldiers to Afghan authorities.
Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae said the Tory boycott reflects Prime Minister Stephen Harper's intention to silence discussion of the issue "from Christmas to the Olympics (in February) and hope that everybody forgets" about it.
"And that isn't going to work. There's no way that we're going to let this guy dictate the work of the committee or shut down Parliament," Rae said.
In a letter to the committee clerk, Tory MP Laurie Hawn, parliamentary secretary to Defence Minister Peter MacKay, said Conservatives would not participate in Tuesday's hearings because Christmas "is a time to spend with family, friends and loved ones.
"One would hope that only the most serious of emergencies should interfere with these moments."
Hawn said there's "presently nothing urgent needing study on the subject of Taliban prisoners." He argued that the alleged torture took place more than three years ago and that Canada has since adopted a new policy on prisoner transfers, which has become the "gold standard" for NATO allies operating in Afghanistan.
NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar scoffed that the Tories would rather "slurp egg nog and eat bon bons" than get to the bottom of the detainee controversy.
During Tuesday's informal hearing, Champ challenged Hawn's assessment of Canada's current prisoner transfer policy.
"We do not believe the problem is fixed," he told opposition MPs.
"The risk of torture remains and in our view any transfers that continue today are still unlawful under our international obligations."
Champ also challenged the government's insistence that there's no absolute proof that any detainees handed over by Canada have been tortured. Indeed, he said the government is using a higher standard of proof than is required.
Under international law, he said simply having "substantial grounds to believe there's a risk of torture" is sufficient to require Canada to cease transferring prisoners.
Champ also took on former chief of defence staff Rick Hillier, who has cast doubt on the credibility of prisoners who claim they've been tortured. Hillier has pointed out that even prisoners in Canada sometimes complain of mistreatment.
"The comparison between Canadian facilities and Afghan facilities I found to be absolutely absurd," Champ said.
"(Abuse is) not systematic or systemic in Canada, nor is the level of abuse. I don't think there's any example of a prisoner in a Canadian facility having their toenails pulled out, being subjected to electric shocks."
Hillier testified earlier this month before the committee, part of a barrage of top military and diplomatic officials who were mobilized to dispute Colvin's claim that his superiors ignored his repeated warnings that every detainee handed over to the Afghans was likely tortured. Hillier dismissed the claim as "ludicrous."
Harper and his ministers have also attacked Colvin's credibility, going so far as to suggest he was duped by the Taliban.
Pardy said the treatment of Colvin has thrown "a very large bucket of cold water" on foreign service officers who are supposed to report honestly and factually on controversial issues to their superiors.
Champ wouldn't bite when asked by Bloc Quebecois MP Claude Bachand if he believes Canada's approach to detainees constitutes a war crime, other than to say the matter requires investigation.
But should charges ever be laid under either domestic or international law, Pardy predicted darkly that it won't be the top military officials or politicians who'll carry the can
"Every time these kind of cases come up, the generals and the ministers disappear over the horizon and it's the poor buggers in the trenches that are going to get it," he said.
"That's the reality here for this kind of situation."
The Tories have used divisive and diversionary tactics to counter the opposition, saying the allegations undermine Canada's troops in Afghanistan. In fact, the opposition has taken pains to point out that the blame rests on the government, not the military.

Organizations: Commons committee, Tory, NDP Bloc Quebecois MPs Amnesty International B.C. Civil Liberties Association Taliban Olympics NATO

Geographic location: Canada, Afghanistan, OTTAWA

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