Three federal cabinet ministers and a senior government official met the head of the International Red Cross in the fall of 2006 as the humantarian organization tried to focus Canada’s attention on alleged abuses in Afghan prisons, The Canadian Press has learned.
Precisely what Jakob Kellenberger told Peter MacKay, Gordon O’Connor, Stockwell Day and Robert Greenhill, then the president of the Canadian International Development Agency, in the Sept. 26, 2006 meetings is blanketed by diplomatic secrecy.
McKay was then Foreign Affairs minister, O’Connor was at Defence and Day was Public Safety minister overseeing Corrections Canada officers in Kandahar.
While the details of the meeting are secret, enough was said about Afghanistan to generate a report from MacKay’s office a month later which flagged the Red Cross president’s concerns.
The contents of the report, one of thousands of documents filed in the Military Police Complaints Commission investigation of torture allegations, are censored.
The email was titled: “Re: meeting with ICRC president re detention issues.”
The Conservative governmernt has insisted it never received direct warnings about possible Afghan torture of Canadian-transferred prisoners, although MacKay has conceded that general concerns were heard almost from the moment the government took office in early 2006.
The fact the Red Cross meetings took place raises further questions about what the federal government knew and the kind of warnings they received in those critical early months.
Officially, the Red Cross would only say the talks focused on topics including Afghanistan, humanitarian law in modern conflicts and co-operation with Canada.
Unofficially, sources in Geneva said the international agency, whose functions include monitoring the treatment of prisoners, was growing frustrated over Canada’s tardy notification of its handover of captured suspected Taliban to Afghan authorities. The delay could often be as much as 34 days, making it difficult to track the detainees.
A spokesman for MacKay referred questions to the foreign affairs department, which declined to comment.
“Recognizing the confidential nature of the relationship between the ICRC and the (government of Canada), we are not in a position to comment on any meetings between the two parties,” Katherine Heath-Eves wrote in an email on Saturday.
The Red Cross is bound by international convention not to discuss with other countries what it saw in Afghan prisons. But it could drop broad hints, as officials did at two meetings with Canadian military and civilian officials in Kandahar in May and June 2006.
During those meetings, which took place a year before the federal government acted to protect detainees, officials issued veiled but insistent warnings about torture in Afghan jails. There were at least two other meetings between Red Cross officials – one in Ottawa, the other in Geneva – to discuss Afghan prisoners.
Diplomat-whistleblower Richard Colvin was also sounding an alarm at the time, although the government has dismissed his reports as vague and based on hearsay.
But the meeting in Ottawa at the end of September would – at the very least – have focused the attention of government ministers on the issue of prisoners, if not the actual jail conditions.
It is evident that what was said caught the attention of government officials because it generated not only the followup report from MacKay’s office, but in a November 2006 meeting with the Red Cross there was a clear change in messaging.
Uncensored talking points viewed on a confidential basis by The Canadian Press say the humanitarian agency was told that Canada was “reflecting on how to engage more pro-actively” with the Afghans over prisoners.
The consideration included “asking the government of Afghanistan for permission to visit the prisons” and to discuss the entire process of handling detainees, said the Nov. 20, 2006 document.
The suggestion of an ad-hoc monitoring regime was at the time welcome news to the Red Cross, which had 2005 and 2006 delivered a handful of diplomatic notes to the Canadian embassy in Kabul related to prisoner concerns.
Instead of following up on the promise made to the Red Cross, federal officials continued to resist establishing a monitoring regime. It was only on May 3, 2007 that Ottawa signed a new deal with the Afghan government, giving Canadians the right to check on the prisoners they captured.
The county’s former top man on the Afghan file conceded in testimony before a House of Commons committee that officials were aware of the abuse allegations, but made a distinction between Canadian-captured prisoners and others in the system.
“The fact that there were allegations of mistreatment in Afghan prisons was known to us,” said David Mulroney, who led the Privy Council’s Afghanistan task force. “There was no mention specifically of Canadian-transferred prisoners – that was a deficiency that we later cleared up.”
He also acknowledged there was no way to get credible evidence about abuse of Canadian transferees because there was no proper monitoring of prisoners prior to 2007.