OTTAWA — The Harper government is refusing to pay the legal bills of a federal official whose warnings of possible torture in Afghan jails sparked a political storm, The Canadian Press has learned.
The Foreign Affairs Department gave preliminary approval to Richard Colvin's request to use an independent lawyer in September.
But it now says it won't pay the first set of bills until his lawyer discloses to the Justice Department who she has been talking with in relation to the case - something that could be a breach of ethical rules.
His pleas for the department to reconsider and to also give its final blessing for his use of an outside counsel have been turned down.
It's the latest development in an escalating dispute between the federal government and the diplomat-turned-intelligence officer, who has signalled he has relevant information about what military police knew - or didn't know - about the possible abuse of prisoners by Afghan authorities.
Colvin opted last summer to retain his own lawyer rather than rely on the Justice Department's stable of attorneys and, under federal guidelines, Ottawa is obliged to cover the cost.
But the government has now demanded to see the "accounts" and detailed notes compiled by his lawyer, Calgary-based Lori Bokenfohr.
The accounts would detail the names of who Bokenfohr has been speaking with in relation to Colvin's case, including the length and dates of such discussions.
Such information falls into the category of solicitor-client secrecy, she suggested.
"In a series of faxes and emails, my client and I have pointed out the clear ethical rules that prevent me as a lawyer from disclosing such information to the Department of Justice," Bokenfohr wrote in a letter sent Monday to the Military Police Complaints Commission.
"I have pointed out my duty to protect this information from disclosure to any third party, and to the Department of Justice as the opposite party in particular."
The letter was obtained by The Canadian Press.
"In sum, until the Department of Justice is permitted to review privileged and confidential details of my representation on behalf of Mr. Colvin, he is blocked from further access to resources to retain independent legal counsel."
Bokenfohr was not immediately available for comment Monday. Nor was a Foreign Affairs spokesperson.
New Democrat foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar says the government can no longer claim that it is co-operating in the search for the truth.
"This is a cynical attempt to isolate Mr. Colvin and to shut him up," he said.
Colvin warned the federal government in writing early in 2006 that Afghan prisoners faced the possibility of torture.
However, senior federal ministers denied ever seeing his reports and former chief of defence staff, general Rick Hillier, said he "doesn't recall" reading them.
The reports have been kept under a blanket of national security, but in an affidavit filed with the Military Police Complaints Commission, Colvin stated he was "alarmed" enough to flag the issue to at least 76 people and agencies within the foreign affairs and defence departments.
His email distribution list included senior military commanders.
Colvin, who was political officer at the provincial reconstruction base in Kandahar and second-in-command at the Canadian embassy in Kabul, was subpoenaed to testify before a public inquiry involving the military police commission.
When he signalled his intention to co-operate with investigators, federal lawyer invoked Section 38 of the Canada Evidence Act, which would prohibit him from answering questions.
It also tried to get Colvin stricken from the commission's witness list, claiming he had nothing to add to the investigation. Federal lawyers initially took the step without knowing what his evidence might be.
The objection was abandoned after his affidavit was filed, a document that laid out in painstaking detail his efforts to raise his concerns with Ottawa.
The public inquiry into what military police might have known is on hold while lawyers argue about the commission's jurisdiction.
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