Canadian General Drops a Bomb: Gov't knew of Afghan detainee abuse
2009-12-10 0:00

By David Ljunggren |

Canada's top soldier detonated a political bombshell on Wednesday when he admitted that, contrary to previous assurances, some Canadian troops knew detainees handed over to Afghan authorities could be abused.

The unexpected announcement by General Walt Natynczyk is a major embarrassment for the military as well as the minority Conservative government, which have both long insisted there was no credible evidence that prisoners might be harmed.

General Walt Natynczyk, the chief of Canada's defense staff, listens to a question during a news conference at the Department of National Defence headquarters in Ottawa December 9, 2009. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

Legal experts say handing over detainees in the knowledge they could be abused is a war crime.

Opposition legislators immediately stepped up demands for a formal inquiry and for Defence Minister Peter MacKay to resign over the affair.

The ruling Conservatives, although still ahead of the main opposition Liberal Party, have slipped in recent polls amid intense media coverage of the abuse allegations.

MacKay has repeatedly told the House of Commons there is no evidence soldiers knew prisoners might be abused. Last month MacKay and senior officials publicly denigrated a Canadian diplomat based in Afghanistan who said he had repeatedly warned of the risk of torture in 2006 and 2007.

A contrite Natynczyk said on Wednesday he had just received information about an incident in southern Afghanistan in June 2006 that showed soldiers knew what could befall detainees.

Reading from the field notes written by a Canadian section commander after troops arrested an Afghan man, he said: "We then photographed the individual prior to handing him over to ensure that if the Afghan National Police did assault him, as has happened in the past, that we would have a visual record of his condition."

Natynczyk said he would launch a full inquiry to discover why the additional information had only come to light now.

"This does beg a number of questions," he admitted.

Canada has 2,800 troops in Afghanistan on a combat mission that is due to end in 2011. So far 133 soldiers have died and recent polls show support for the mission is slipping.

The military has already revealed that the detainee in question was abused by the Afghan National Police (ANP). Canadian troops later rescued him.

Natynczyk, and government ministers, initially said the man was arrested by Afghan troops taking part in a joint operation and was never in Canadian custody.

"I want to correct my statement ... the individual who was beaten by Afghan police was in fact in Canadian custody and then the ANP took control of him," said Natynczyk.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper still had full confidence in both MacKay and Natynczyk, a spokesman said.

MacKay, Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon and former Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor are due to testify to a House of Commons committee on Afghanistan later on Wednesday.

Peter MacKay, right, and Gordon O'Connor chat prior to a Dec. 9 parliamentary committee probe on Canada's military mission in Afghanistan. "Not once have we ever turned a blind eye" to allegations of torture, MacKay told the committee.

The Liberals said Natynczyk's revelation only underscored their demands for a formal public inquiry into the case.

"A judge with all the necessary power could get to the truth ... I'm fed up with all these stories," said Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, accusing the government of continually changing its tale on the abuse affair.

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