Former diplomat to Kabul, Richard Colvin, caused quite a stir in Canadian politics with his testimony to a parliamentary committee on the Afghan mission on 18 November 2009. Colvin described how he repeatedly alerted his superiors to the fact that prisoners handed over to the NDS (National Directorate of Security) were likely to face torture and abuse.
He argued that most of the Afghans detained by Canadian soldiers were not “high-value targets” but “just local people, farmers, truck drivers, tailors, peasants, random human beings in the wrong place at the wrong time” and that Canadian troops had “detained and handed over for severe torture a lot of innocent people.” (You can find an extract of his opening statement here, one of the first articles discussing his statement here, and the video of his testimony here and here).
Officials and conservative MPs were quick to undermine Colvin’s credibility, arguing that his testimony was based on hearsay and that he had been fed with Taliban propaganda. Defence Minister Mackay claimed that “there has not been a single, solitary proven allegation of abuse involving a transferred prisoner by Canadian forces”. Others however testified that the government at the time had mainly been struggling with the chaos of fighting an unexpectedly fierce insurgency and that it had only gradually came to grips with the fact that it couldn’t really tell whether the detainees it handed over were tortured.
The detainee dossier has been awkward from the very beginning and for all countries involved (Canada was by no means alone in this, ask the Dutch, the Danes, the Brits, the Norwegians). To pretend otherwise is disingenuous – or extremely ill-informed. There is no argument on whether torture and ill-treatment takes place during interrogation in NDS detention. Details provided by human rights organisations, former detainees and people from within the system have been consistent over the years. A November 2008 Human Rights Watch report for instance mentions the “persistent reports of mistreatment in NDS detention” while the Amnesty International 2007call to halt the transfers of detainees cites “consistent reports of torture and other ill-treatment by the NDS”. Or as Mark Sedra, a long-time analyst of the Afghan security sector, remarks in his comments here: “the revelations of Colvin are nothing new. Most Afghans would also express little surprise; their only shock would be over the naïveté of those who believe some form of torture is not a routine aspect of prison life in Afghanistan.”
This is also corroborated by several – heavily blacked-out – emails that describe visits by Canadian officials, including Richard Colvin, to various detention centres in Kandahar and Kabul (copies of the emails can be foundhere). The released emails do not clearly establish who knew what when and who for that reason is to blame, nor does it answer the question whether the ‘Canadian’ detainees were tortured as well – all the things that Canadian politics is currently obsessing over. But they describe reports by detainees of threats, stress positions, sleep deprivation, slapping, beatings with cables or unknown objects (the prisoner could not tell as he was blindfolded) and electric shocks – which are consistent with what is generally known about NDS interrogation methods.
The second piece of uncomfortable information that Colvin provided the Canadian public with was that many of the detainees, who may have been tortured, had been innocent. The military sought to dispel this notion, describing how Canadians only detained those who tested positive for a gunshot residue test, were found with guns or bomb-making parts or near IED strikes, or were otherwise ‘highly suspicious’, such as well-dressed men carrying large amounts of Pakistani cash.
But even if you formulate guidelines on what kind of people are considered suspicious, this does not take away from the fact that suspicious is not the same as guilty and that you are handing them over to a system that is unlikely to make that distinction. The net cast – by both international military and local security agencies – to find and detain ‘suspicious elements’ tends to be very wide indeed. Arrests of people who were falsely reported on, who happened to have the same name as a wanted person, or who simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time are widespread. And the methods of interrogation – repetitious questioning, threats and physical abuse, and the fixation on a confession – are ill-suited to determine who is really a threat and who is not.
It is of course true that claims of innocence by detainees are fairly universal and often self-serving, but in Afghanistan, I have to say, they are often the more credible of the various possibilities. Reported details of conversations between interrogators, judges, prosecutors, lawyers and prisoners often contain absurd details that are difficult to fabricate and that illustrate how far off the system is.
Over the last few days I have been trying to pinpoint in my mind what the real issue is. It is not so much about deplorable conditions in Afghanistan’s detention centres, although it would be very good if we could do something about that. It is also not in the first place about whether Canadian forces – or any other forces for that matter – have possibly been responsible, several years ago, for the hand-over of innocent people into torture. Because that dilemma can be ‘solved’ by establishing monitoring and tracking agreements – as many of the nations involved have done – so that you can regularly interview ‘your own’ prisoners and assure your capital that they are being treated well. The real issue is that under our noses there is a security agency that tortures and that for years we have chosen to look the other way. Occasional – and often very discrete – calls for NDS reform and greater oversight have been consistently brushed aside.
This is part of a wider pattern in which the urgency felt, either in the context of a global ‘war on terror’ or as a result of being under constant attack by an elusive enemy, is blurring the thinking on what is acceptable and what is not. This is not a new phenomenon. It is prevalent in every country or context where torture or ill-treatment has been practiced, condoned or tolerated. It has been fought in many countries; it needs to be fought here too.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020