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Bill Curry, The Globe and Mail
May 26, 2009
On opening day, probe criticized by Ottawa lawyer who first called for complaints commission to investigate
The effectiveness of a rare public probe into Canada’s treatment of Afghan detainees is being challenged by the Ottawa lawyer who first called for the Military Police Complaints Commission to investigate.
Amir Attaran, a University of Ottawa law professor who raised concerns with the commission more than two years ago over the issue of Afghan detainees, said the process outlined in Monday’s opening hearing is unacceptable.
Mr. Attaran objected to what he described as “soft-pitch questions” from commission counsel Freya Kristjanson to the inquiry’s first witness, Colonel Richard GiguÃƒÆ’Ã‚Â¨re, on the role of Canada’s military in Afghanistan. He criticized the commission counsel’s plan not to raise contentious issues with government officials until October. And he questioned why the commission did not summon an official with more direct experience working in Kandahar, where Afghan prisoners claim to have been tortured after being handed over to Afghan government authorities by Canadian soldiers.
“If the Military Police Complaints Commission proves, in this week particularly but also in coming months, that the best it can muster is a non-adversarial process in which it won’t use its subpoena powers, well, then one wonders why it exists,” Mr. Attaran said.
Monday’s opening session of the inquiry into whether Canada’s military knowingly sent Afghan detainees to be tortured by Afghan officials comes after two years of attempts by the federal government to block the proceedings on national security grounds. It is only the second time in the commission’s history that it has held public hearings.
Human-rights advocates, including Mr. Attaran, want the inquiry to determine whether Canada’s actions violated the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which forbids a state from returning a person to a country where there are substantial grounds for believing the person will be tortured.
The inquiry was launched even though the Federal Court is scheduled to hear arguments in August from the federal government objecting to the investigation as being beyond the commission’s mandate.
Ms. Kristjanson, who has experience on such high-profile cases as the Maher Arar inquiry and the Somalia inquiry, said it is normal to begin with general questions that lay out the background. She said more detailed questioning on specific allegations will take place in the fall once government documents have been processed.
“That’s exactly how they started off at the Somalia inquiry,” she said. “We’ll be calling lots of evidence directly relevant to all issues in the fall, and if it will be by summons, it will be by summons.”
The government originally refused to provide the commission with any documents on Afghan detainees. However, Ms. Kristjanson said it has been co-operating since the commission chose to call public hearings — at an estimated cost of $4-million.
The two groups that formally requested the investigation, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and Amnesty International Canada, will testify next week. Although no further hearings will take place until October, the commission will release government documents throughout the summer as they are declassified.
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