Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Ottawa's approach, out-of-sight, out-of-mind

Ottawa silent on fate of captured terror suspects
No accounting for scores of detainees that have been handed to Americans, Afghans
PAUL KORING Feb 6 / Globe and Mail

WASHINGTON — Scores of terrorist suspects captured by Canadians have disappeared into the murky netherworld of Afghan and American prisons, but Ottawa refuses to say what has happened to them or even if it knows whether any have been tried, charged, or released, or how they are treated.

According to a Canadian Forces log of detainees, 40 had been handed over by April, 2006. From a review of a heavily excised and incomplete set of military police documents, it seems that several dozen more have been captured and handed over to Afghan police since then.

But Canada's Expeditionary Forces Command, headed by Lieutenant-General Michel Gautier, who oversees all Canadian Forces deployed abroad, refuses to account for terrorist suspects captured since May 1, 2006.

Some have apparently been freed by the Canadians who determined -- in a process not made clear -- that they didn't deserve to be handed over to the Afghan police. However, there is no accounting for them either, only the terse notations "fit for release" on medical forms.

Others, dubbed "fit for transfer," disappear into Afghan prisons. Once there, there is no further Canadian oversight.

Canada's out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach means detainees are handed over to others as soon as possible, often within hours. Once gone, the Canadian government, in effect, washes its hands of further responsibility or accountability.

"At the heart of this . . . we're trying to avoid instances such as torture. The responsibility doesn't end when you hand someone over," said Hilary Homes, Amnesty International Canada's lead advocate on international justice, security and human rights.

The Canadian government admits it "has not done any follow-up" about the fate of detainees, she said in an interview, adding that the "entire detainee regime needs to be investigated."

Canada's top general, Rick Hillier, who once called Taliban fighters "detestable murderers and scumbags," defends handing detainees over to Afghan authorities, despite international condemnation of human-rights abuse in its prisons and widespread police corruption.

"We hand them to either the Afghan national police or the Afghan national army," he has said. "We're trying to help build a country; you've got to help build their rule of law, a justice system, which includes a prison system."

But Ottawa refuses to account for what happens to detainees, either in Canadian Forces custody or after they are handed off to the Afghans.

It won't even say whether any have died in custody or confirm that all those captured were handed over to Afghan police, as is now Canadian policy for its combat troops in Kandahar.

"Information regarding detainees apprehended by CF elements in Afghanistan, as well as to which authorities these individuals were transferred, is not releasable," CEFCOM said in a written response to a series of questions from The Globe and Mail. The military claims "operational security requirements" for refusing to release a log of detainees, even though it had done so in the past.

The log up to April, 2006, lists detainees only by number.

Their names, nationality, and any other personal identifying information isn't included; only the date of capture, the date of transfer and the date, usually weeks later, when the International Committee of the Red Cross was notified that the detainee was in either American or Afghan hands.

At least four detainees were seized from ships stopped on the high seas by Canadian warships in the Persian Gulf or North Arabian Sea between July, 2002, and June, 2005, and were handed over the U.S.

Most, perhaps all, of the 14 suspects captured in Afghanistan by Canadian special forces and regular troops between January, 2002, and the Dec. 18, 2005, agreement with the Afghans, were also handed over to the United States.

Since then, and in some cases before, according to Canadian officials, suspects captured in Afghanistan have been turned over to Afghan police.

Unlike some NATO nations -- such as Holland -- Canada has no right to check on interrogation or conditions in Afghan prisons once it transfers detainees.

Foreign Affairs officials confirm no captives originally handed over by Canadian military forces to their U.S. counterparts remain at Guantanamo, the U.S. prison at a naval base in Cuba. However, they won't say where they are being held, or whether any have been released from custody.

According to Amnesty International, the U.S. military is known to maintain a prison at Bagram Air Base near Kabul and another at Kandahar Air Base. Unlike with Guantanamo, there has been no U.S. accounting of the prisoners held at those prisons. Nor is anything publicly known about what happens to captives handed over to the Afghan authorities.