OTTAWA – A small but powerful group of senior public servants chose which Afghanistan detainee documents to turn over to a military watchdog, an inquiry has heard.
But it took nearly an hour of questioning Monday before the Military Police Complaints Commission learned who decided to withhold reams of paper on prisoner transfers.
Foreign Affairs’ top bureaucrat eventually told the commission that the heads of several departments met about the documents.
“There wasn’t a name,” deputy minister Len Edwards said.
“This was a collective decision that was taken among senior officials on the basis of advice of counsel. It was a collective decision, it was a consensual decision.
“No one individual took the decision.”
Those senior officials came from Foreign Affairs, National Defence, CIDA and Public Safety.
Also at the meetings were Justice Department lawyers and the clerk of the Privy Council, the bureaucratic arm of the Prime Minister’s Office.
That deputy minister-level group, as it was called, was formed after Parliament voted to extend the Afghan mission for two more years in the spring of 2008.
Before that, a group of assistant deputy ministers from Foreign Affairs, National Defence and other departments made those decisions.
Lawyers for the Military Police Complaints Commission and two civil-rights groups tried Monday to get to the bottom of a paper jam that threatens to stall the inquiry.
“I want to know who’s responsible for the decision,” commission counsel Ron Lunau said to Edwards. “You understand the concept of responsibility?”
“I sure as hell hope so,” Edwards replied. “I sure as hell hope so.”
Further delaying things was a federal lawyer’s objections to attempts to name the specific people who made the documents decision.
Justice Department lawyer Alain Prefontaine said the government is ultimately responsible for the paper jam of Afghanistan detainee documents, not the bureaucrats.
Prefontaine likened it to asking tech giant IBM to disclose who within the company made key decisions.
“I think if IBM were here today, I’d be entitled to ask: ‘Did the president of IBM make the decision? If not, who did?”‘ commission counsel Ron Lunau replied.
“We’re here because there’s an issue of accountability.”
The commission first asked Foreign Affairs for 100,000 pages, later whittled down to some 4,000 pages. But just 680 have been turned over in the last three years.
Those 680 pages make up about 116 separate documents.
Buried somewhere in that paper are a former foreign service officer’s reports of alleged torture in Afghan jails.
The reports by Nicholas Gosselin cover at least eight claims of mistreatment by Afghan authorities between January and August 2008. Word of their existence emerged when Gosselin testified at the hearings last month.
Jillian Stirk, assistant deputy minister of Foreign Affairs, told the commission she spent the weekend going over Gosselin’s reports.
Asked by a government lawyer if those reports mention torture of Canadian-transferred detainees, Stirk replied the reports from 2007 do, but not the ones from 2008.
The commission is investigating an allegation from Amnesty International Canada and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.
The groups say Canadian military police did not properly investigate officers responsible for directing the transfer of detainees to Afghan authorities, allegedly at the risk of torture.
Transferring prisoners between countries knowing they likely face torture is considered a war crime.