OTTAWA – Richard Colvin, the whistleblower-diplomat in the Afghan detainee issue, says he believes the Conservative government is retaliating for his damaging torture testimony late last year.
In a letter Monday to the Military Police Complaints Commission, Owen Rees, Colvin’s Toronto lawyer, says his client has “a reasonable belief” that the government’s refusal to pay his legal bills is a reprisal.
Rees says the government has essentially stopped paying Colvin’s legal fees since November, when the diplomat told a House of Commons committee that several senior government officials were aware that Canadian Forces in Afghanistan were handing over detainees to be tortured by Afghan authorities in 2005 and 2006.
“Coupled with the government’s public attacks on Mr. Colvin and his testimony before the special committee on the Canadian mission in Afghanistan … our client is left with the reasonable belief that the denial of legal indemnification is a reprisal for his participation before the committee and the commission,” the letter says.
The latest Colvin development comes with Parliament suspended until March, leaving opposition MPs without their usual forum to tackle the issue. The opposition has accused Prime Minister Stephen Harper of proroguing Parliament to stifle the whole Afghan detainee issue.
Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Liberal and New Democrat MPs condemned the government’s handling of Colvin’s case.
“The denial of funds for legal counsel for Colvin is arbitrary and repugnant as is the shutting of Parliament,”said Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh.
“Denial of additional funds for legal counsel will prevent Colvin from testifying before MPCC; exactly the result Harper wants. It is obstruction of the work of MPCC.”
Paul Dewar of the NDP said it’s another effort to sweep the detainee issue aside.
“We now see the Conservatives retaliating against Mr. Colvin for doing his job. They’re trying to bury the issues of Afghan detainees – but these actions only add to the perception that the government is engaged in coverup on the detainee file.”
Colvin is entitled to legal representations as a federal civil servant who was summoned to testify about his work in Afghanistan. The government agreed to provide some funding for independent counsel after his original lawyer argued in the months prior to his testimony that the Justice Department could not represent parties on both sides of the dispute, given the risk of a conflict of interest.
But the Conservative government has not agreed to any additional funding despite the continuing Military Police Complaints Commission investigation. Colvin’s testimony before the committee led to public attacks on his credibility by Defence Minister Peter MacKay and former top military generals.
Those attacks prompted Colvin to submit a 16-page letter to the MPCC in December defending himself and disputing their version of events.
On Nov. 27, about a week after his testimony, Colvin asked for additional legal funding but has yet to receive a reply.
“The government of Canada has failed to even respond to our client’s request,” Rees wrote. “This is a matter of grave concern for Mr. Colvin.”
Without legal representation, Rees said, it would be difficult for Colvin to continue to testify before the commission.
“The government of Canada’s inaction in this regard is impeding our client’s ability to participate as a witness before the commission with the assistance of legal counsel, which is appropriate and necessary given the complexity of the legal issues raised, including the government’s claims of national security confidentiality,” he wrote.
Colvin set off a political storm in November when he told the parliamentary committee that Canada failed to monitor detainee conditions in Afghanistan when he was deputy ambassador there from April 2006 to October 2007. Detainees transferred by Canadian soldiers to Afghan prisons were likely tortured, he added.
“According to our information, the likelihood is that all the Afghans we handed over were tortured,” Colvin said. “For interrogators in Kandahar, it was a standard operating procedure.”
The government has denied Colvin’s allegations.
“There are incredible holes in the story that have to be examined,” MacKay told the Commons, rejecting calls for a public inquiry.