POLITICS
06/22/2011 06:50 EDT | Updated 08/22/2011 05:12 EDT

Afghan Detainees: Government Releases 4,000 Pages Of Documents

Canadian Press

THE CANADIAN PRESS -- OTTAWA - The Conservative government wants to shut down a review of documents about the handling and treatment of detainees in Afghanistan.

But opposition MPs say the job is far from over.

A keenly-awaited parliamentary tabling of a massive trove of records Wednesday revived long-dormant questions about whether Canadians knew the prisoners they handed over might be tortured in Afghan jails.

The release of 362 documents totalling some 4,000 pages also rekindled debate over whether the wait was worth it.

Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird immediately claimed vindication, saying the multi-million dollar document vetting exercise supports "what the government has said all along" and would not be continued.

"The process is over," he told reporters.

The Conservatives' initial refusal to disclose thousands of pages of Foreign Affairs and Defence Department reports prompted a parliamentary crisis in late 2009 — and a subsequent compromise.

Former Supreme Court justices Frank Iacobucci and Claire L'Heureux-Dube, one-time B.C. judge Donald Brenner and an ad-hoc committee of MPs from three parties looked at thousands of documents to determine which ones could be released without endangering national security.

Brenner died in March, but the group carried on. When a federal election was called in late March the special committee dissolved along with Parliament, leaving the panel of judges unable to deliver its first report.

An April 13 letter from L'Heureux-Dube and Iacobucci, released Wednesday, indicated the judicial panel was on standby "until its future role, if any, is clarified."

"We have also instructed our staff to continue their preparatory work relating to other documents the committee referred to the panel."

But it appeared Wednesday that remaining documents — it was unclear how many had yet to be processed — would remain under wraps.

Baird made it clear the Conservatives have no intention of continuing the review, saying the MPs had guided the judges as to which key documents to focus on.

"They had the choice. They had the ability to set priorities of what documents they thought were relevant," Baird said.

The real questions are, what's the government holding back — and why, said Opposition Leader Jack Layton.

"This is a secret government. It's a government that doesn't want to reveal any information, that's well known," the NDP leader said.

"There will inevitably be some documents that they're not releasing. Unless they're prepared to tell us, 'we decided to release absolutely everything with nothing marked out and nothing redacted.' I think that that would be quite surprising if that was the result."

The New Democrats had no faith in the process and refused to take part. The party argues the year-long committee review simply defused the volatile detainee issue.

In the House of Commons, Justice Minister Rob Nicholson chided the NDP for "heading for the door" once the committee was established.

"If they were that worried about Taliban prisoners, Mr. Speaker, I would've thought they would've shown up for work."

It's unfortunate that it's taken so long to disclose documents, said Michael Byers, the Canadian Research Chair in International Law and Politics at the University of British Columbia.

"One can only surmise that the Harper government was worried that these documents would affect domestic politics in a way that would be disadvantageous to them in the election."

"But putting the politics aside for a moment, it is a good thing that these documents are finally coming into the public domain," said Byers, a former NDP candidate. "Because there are concerns — which I share — that Canadian officials may have acted improperly with respect to the transfer of detainees."

The possibility that Canadians may have violated international humanitarian law needs to be either verified or disproven in public so the matter can be put to rest, he added.

"The critical question today, is whether the censored portions of these documents make it impossible to determine whether violations of international law occurred."

The government has consistently insisted that questions about the treatment of Afghan detainees by Afghan officials amounted to slurs against the behaviour of Canadian soldiers.

Echoing Baird, Defence Minister Peter MacKay said Wednesday after 12 months and millions of dollars, "no credible allegations against our men and women in uniform were found."

But the allegations never were focused on Canadian soldiers following orders and handing over detainees. The issue was whether those orders from above were wilfully misguided, and whether the Conservatives covered up problems long after it became clear there were serious human rights abuses taking place in Afghan prisons.

Liberal Leader Bob Rae said the exercise is not over.

"I don't think the process is over in the sense that we've asked for a review and a consideration of all the documents in the government's possession," he said.

"As frustrating (as this has been) and as long as it's all taken, it's still not completed."