OTTAWA — The Conservative government, citing national security concerns, is trying to block 22 witnesses from testifying at a public inquiry into allegations that Canadian soldiers transferred Afghan captives to local authorities knowing they faced a risk of torture.
The government has filed a motion with the Military Police Complaints Commission, which subpoenaed public servants to find out what they knew about prisoner abuse.
"I think the government wants to do everything possible to stop anything from coming to light about transferring detainees when they risked torture," said Paul Champ, a lawyer for Amnesty International.
The inquiry was called following complaints from Amnesty and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association that military police failed to live up to their international obligations by transferring captured insurgents to Afghan authorities with a reputation for abusing their detainees.
The probe is scheduled to reconvene Wednesday (Oct. 7) after a four-month hiatus.
One of the 22 public servants who have been subpoenaed is Richard Colvin, a Foreign Affairs official who visited Afghan prisoners and heard stories of torture, saw the evidence first-hand and wants to share what he knows, said Champ.
Defence Minister Peter MacKay, facing accusations from NDP Leader Jack Layton that the government is trying to "muzzle" the commission, told the House of Commons on Thursday that Colvin and other witnesses are no longer relevant as a result of a recent Federal Court ruling that curtailed the scope of the inquiry.
A judge ruled early last week that the probe can examine the conduct of military police but that it cannot delve into broader issues of public policy.
The Justice Department's argument is two fold: lawyers say the testimony of the 22 public servants is not relevant and, even if it was, they wouldn't be able to publicly testify because it could breach national security. In their motion to quash the subpoenas, justice lawyers have invoked a section of the Canada Evidence Act that protects national security.
Colvin's lawyer says that he does have pertinent information and that he wants to divulge it.
"Mr. Colvin does have personal knowledge of what military police subjects knew or had the means of knowing," Lori Bokenfohr wrote in a Sept. 28 letter to Justice Department lawyer Alain Prefontaine. She said that he also has "documentation" to support his assertions.
"Mr. Colvin's knowledge/documentation relate . . . to risk of torture resulting from the transfer of detainees to Afghan authorities."
The inquiry will deal with the issue of whether the summonses should be quashed during the week of Oct. 13.
The inquiry has been delayed by a series of court challenges, including a government bid to block the probe on grounds that it could unfairly damage the reputations of Canadian Forces members, inadvertently divulge military secrets, and turn out to be a waste of money during tight economic times.
A Federal Court judge ruled earlier this year that the inquiry could proceed and that she is satisfied the commission has developed special rules of procedure to prevent secrets that threaten national security from being blurted out.
Other officials called to testify include former commanders of Canadian troops in Afghanistan and the head of the federal prison service.