06/11/2012 03:53 EDT | Updated 08/11/2012 05:12 EDT

NATO order last year ended Canadian transfer of Taliban prisoners to Afghans

OTTAWA - Canadian troops quietly stopped handing captured Taliban fighters over to Afghan authorities in mid-2011, almost six months before the Harper government publicly acknowledged the change to the controversial policy.

An order by NATO's southern command in Afghanistan ultimately ended the politically incendiary practice of turning the prisoners over to the Afghans.

The halt to transfers happened just as the Canadian combat mission in Kandahar drew to a close and U.S. forces took full control of the restive province.

NATO, in a sweeping July 2011 directive, ordered all units to cease handovers to the notorious Afghan intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security, and to the Afghan National Police and Afghan Border Police.

Canada's top military commander, Gen. Walt Natynczyk, "deemed it was appropriate to Canadian-captured detainees to be redirected to another facility," said a July 15, 2011, briefing note prepared for Defence Minister Peter MacKay.

Diplomats at Foreign Affairs began negotiations almost immediately to send prisoners to a U.S. detention facility in Parwan, located outside of Bagram Airfield, north of Kabul.

The Americans have since agreed to give control of the prison and its 3,000 detainees to the Afghans.

The change in Canada's policy, which Conservatives fought hard to defend throughout the war, was not announced publicly until December. Critics found the timing curious, especially since chances were slim that soldiers involved in the new training mission would be taking prisoners.

A statement from National Defence, issued Monday night, said the transfer of prisoners to Afghan authorities by Canadians was suspended just before the NATO directive was issued.

"In early July 2011, information concerning the possible mistreatment of Afghan detainees — not Canadian-transferred detainees — raised the Canadian chain of command’s concern," said spokesperson Morgan Bailey.

"We ceased transfers as a result."

The agreement also brought the federal government full circle. In the early stages of the Afghan campaign, Canada sent captured Taliban fighters to American custody, but when torture allegations and scandals erupted at U.S. facilities in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Abu Ghraib, Iraq, the practice was changed.

NATO's decision pre-empted a scathing United Nations report which said prisoners handed over by international forces were subjected to "systematic" torture by Afghan interrogators.

The report, released publicly last October, painted a picture of brutal abuse that was far more widespread than previously thought.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government disputed the findings, which said prisoners were subjected to brutal beatings and electric shocks at several Afghan-run centre.

The lawyer who fought on behalf of Amnesty International and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association to halt Canada's transfers says it is "among the cruelest of ironies" that after so much wrangling, it took only one order from NATO to stop the practice.

"The Harper government fought us in court and in commissions for five years throughout the duration of that mission to maintain the right to continue transfers to Afghan authorities and to argue that there was not a risk of torture," said Paul Champ.

"It affirms everything we've been saying all along. It contradicts what Canada had been saying all along about the risk of torture. It's a sad final chapter on that whole scandal."

Champ said questions still linger, such as whether the Americans, who were skeptical of the handover policies of Canada, Britain and the Netherlands, pushed NATO into having one position.

Meanwhile, the officer who recently commanded the country's training mission told a Senate committee Monday that the Afghan security forces and the justice system are slowly coming around.

"Are they at the level we want to be? No," said Maj.-Gen. Mike Day. "Are they at the level where they need to be? No. Are they on the way to get there? Absolutely, unequivocally, yes."

Afghan cops were considered among the worst for abusing prisoners.

Throughout much of northern Afghanistan the switch from para-military policing toward the more benign law enforcement policing is well underway, Day told senators.

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