OTTAWA – The diplomat has dropped the diplomacy.
Richard Colvin provided new details Wednesday of his warnings to Ottawa about the risks of torture facing detainees handed over to Afghan authorities by Canadian soldiers.
In a written submission to a parliamentary committee probing allegations of abuse, Colvin confirms that he — and his military and RCMP colleagues in Kandahar — passed on warnings from the International Red Cross Committee that it could not track Canada's transferred detainees early in the spring of 2006, a full year before the government acted to improve protections.
Details in Colvin's 16-page letter to the committee stand in sharp contrast to the version of events given by three cabinet ministers, three generals and senior bureaucrats like David Mulroney, who steered the Afghan task force in Ottawa.
Contrary to the government's claims that Colvin's was a lone voice, and did not provide specific evidence or explicitly warn that "torture" was an issue, Colvin's letter spells out that his concerns were shared back in 2006 by Kandahar-based personnel, as well as by Canada's military allies in the International Security Assistance Force or ISAF.
As first reported by the Star, Colvin's earliest warning came in May 2006 and specified that it was none other than the Red Cross, the global humanitarian agency charged with monitoring detainees and reporting directly to the Afghan government, which transmitted in no uncertain terms its concerns to Canada through Colvin.
"As a result of lengthy delays and inadequate information, detainees were in some cases getting lost and therefore could not be monitored," Colvin's letter says, citing a memo that still remains largely censored from public view.
Colvin's letter refers to a June 2, 2006 memo that went further, containing "verbatim comments that spelled out the nature of the concerns."
"We were sufficiently concerned that the whole-of-government leadership of the PRT (provincial reconstruction team) — from the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAIT), the Canadian Forces and the RCMP — not only reported the warnings to Ottawa but also promptly took steps in the field to try to address them," Colvin's letter states.
Colvin also counters claims by Gen. Rick Hillier and Defence Minister Peter MacKay that he should have flagged concerns directly to them when they travelled to Afghanistan.
Colvin says he had only been in Afghanistan for 10 days when MacKay arrived on May 8, 2006. Colvin organized MacKay's visit, but had had no meetings on detainee handling practices or information to convey.
In any event, he insists it would have been an "inappropriate" move to violate protocol and go straight to the top. It would have been seen as "evidence of 'going rogue' " or inviting a reprimand from his bosses, writes Colvin. Instead, he conveyed his concerns up the line to Mulroney and Privy Council Clerk Kevin Lynch by May 26, 2006 once he got up to speed.
Colvin writes that he and his colleagues copied reports to National Defence headquarters and it was up to the military to move it up the chain of command. "Our job was to provide input to policy, not to beat senior officials over the head with our reports when they were in our physical vicinity."
Colvin's letter reveals that in June 2007 after a new prisoner transfer deal was finally struck, and Canadian embassy officials reported on cases of suspected torture of four detainees, the Canadian embassy asked the NDS to investigate. The Afghan intelligence service sent such a flimsy response, and denial of any wrongdoing, that then-ambassador Arif Lalani "refused even to accept the report. He sent it back."
He sets out a chronology of increasingly sharper warnings.
By September 2006, when Colvin was at the embassy in Kabul, he reported "even blunter complaints from ISAF about Canada's detainee transfers."
By Dec. 4, 2006, Colvin's letter cites an embassy report that conveyed "allies' concerns that detainees may 'vanish from sight' after being transferred to Afghan custody as well as the risk that they were 'tortured.'"
By the end of December 2006, Colvin's letter states the embassy's annual human rights report warned "torture" is rife in Afghan jails, as are "extrajudicial executions and disappearances." The report used the word "torture" repeatedly, according to Colvin's letter.
Colvin says he delivered verbal warnings too, particularly in March 2007.
At an inter-departmental meeting a month before a Globe and Mail article detailed first-hand interviews with Afghans detainees who claimed they'd been tortured after transfer by the Canadians, Colvin writes he told Ottawa officials that the Afghan National Directorate of Security — its intelligence service — "tortures" its captives.
"The NDS tortures people, that's what they do, and if we don't want our detainees tortured, we shouldn't give them to the NDS," Colvin quotes himself at the meeting.
The letter cites two 2006 reports by the U.S. State Department report (March 8, 2006) and a UN report by Secretary General Kofi Annan of March 7, 2006.
Both explicitly cited torture as documented practice in Afghan prisons. The U.S. reported secret or unofficial prisons to which the International Red Cross had no access.
Colvin's letter says that assertions to the committee by other witnesses that the first "credible claims of torture" only arose in November 2007 "are therefore inaccurate."
Colvin's letter says Canada's decision not to directly monitor its detainees — unlike such NATO allies as the Dutch — and its slow system of notifying Red Cross field investigators was a real problem.
"Because of notification delays the Red Cross was also unable to monitor (transferred detainees) during the first days or weeks of detention, when the risk of torture is highest," Colvin writes.
Colvin says despite a new deal that was struck in May 2007, it wasn't until five months later that a Canadian monitor was sent into the Afghan prisons.
In late October 2007, he says, a monitor "quickly found conclusive evidence of torture" and only then were transfers halted — a 17-month period since the earliest warnings from the Kandahar PRT personnel.
Responding to Colvin's letter of rebuttal, MacKay's spokesman Dan Dugas said the federal government does not have much more to add:
"In past weeks, we have heard from no less than seven senior military and diplomatic officials who have all refuted Mr. Colvin's claims," Dugas said in an emailed response to the Star.
"The events happened over three years ago and have been thoroughly aired many times since then. When military and diplomatic officials have been presented with credible, substantiated evidence, they have taken appropriate action."
He said the Opposition is "second-guessing the actions of the Canadian Forces with four years of hindsight. The CF has acted honourably in Afghanistan, we're proud of them, and to suggest otherwise is disgraceful. We reject all assertions that Canadian troops have committed war crimes."
Colvin's letter recaps and fills in some of the blanks in censored documents already filed with the committee and with the Military Police Complaints Commission that is also probing the treatment of Afghan detainees.
And it addresses several claims and criticisms made since Colvin's initial testimony:
- He defends his specific claim that "all detainees were tortured," and denies it was mere speculation that Hillier dismissed as "ludicrous."
- While he does not reveal the "highly credible source" of his information, he says he warned Ottawa of it in May or June 2007. "Detainees were not a source" of the claim, he says.
- As for the suggestion by MacKay that Colvin in general accepted unsubstantiated claims of abuse by "the Taliban," Colvin's letter says his sources while in Afghanistan were Afghan and foreign intelligence services and reports, other NATO embassies, ISAF, the United Nations and European Union missions and "relevant human rights organizations," although he does not identify the International Red Cross Committee as a source of information about "torture."
- Colvin also refutes David Mulroney's denial that officials like Colvin were urged not to put damaging information in writing.
His letter says that although Mulroney claimed he was only encouraging "fact-based" reporting, "embassy staffers were told that they should not report information, however accurate, that conflicted with the government's public messaging."
Colvin points to a sanitized memo by ambassador Arif Lalani that said security was improving but deleted references to an opinion expressed by Afghan's own defence minister that the security situation was actually deteriorating.
He also points to a September 2007 report by an unnamed embassy staffer that said security had gotten worse — which earned a written rebuke by Mulroney.
- And he fires back at the public suggestions that he spent most of his time in the safe confines of the PRT walls, and "went outside the wire only once."
He says he travelled outside the protected compounds in Kandahar at the PRT or at the base at least 11 times, including attending a village meeting of elders in northern Kandahar province, visiting villages in Arghandab and spending the night at a forward operating base in Panjwayi. He says he left the embassy in Kabul some 500 times and travelled to other provinces.
Colvin also flatly rejects the label "whistleblower."
"I am a loyal public servant of the Crown who did his job in Afghanistan to the best of his abilities, working through internal and authorized channels."
"I feel it is my duty as a public servant when commanded to appear before the parliamentary committee to give evidence that is full, frank and fair. I feel duty bound to be frank and thorough in responding to the committee's inquiries."
NDP critic Jack Harris said Wednesday after Colvin's letter was released that it proves that there should be an independent "fact-finding" inquiry into the whole affair.
"This is not going away."
***MS*** And it is the whole snubbery of parliament, which has really riled the lot of us, Mr. Harper. Pay heed to those who know a thing or three, sir.