Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Intimidation of witnesses alleged at federal tribunal

Some very serious allegations came to light yesterday about the conduct of the federal government at the Military Police Complaints Commission, including the bullying and intimidation of witnesses. This is the commission seeking to look into the transfers of detainees in Afghanistan and the military's knowledge of the risk that they would be tortured. This CP report and this Globe report cover yesterday's developments. The CP one goes into more detail and really should be read fully to get a sense of how far the government is pushing the limits here.

The lawyer for a diplomat, Richard Colvin, who wants to testify disclosed some of the allegations about the conduct of the government yesterday. Among the more important disclosures, the contents of a letter sent to potential witnesses this past summer, telling witnesses that should they appear, "...reputations were at stake." Witnesses were told: "what is at stake for you." Subsequently, all witnesses except Colvin have - not surprisingly - declined to testify. Colvin is presently being kept from testifying due to national security provisions having been invoked by the government.

The fact that such warnings were made in a government letter to witnesses is quite remarkable. We should be very concerned when our government takes steps like this. It should not be happening.

CP provides a reminder of what is at stake here:

Both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Defence Minister Peter MacKay have repeatedly denied opposition charges that the government is trying to obstruct the investigation, which is looking at whether Canadian military police handed prisoners over to Afghan jailers, knowing there was the risk of torture.

If true, it could be in contravention of international law.

When you consider what we're hearing about the government's treatment of witnesses, e.g., above, it's very hard to square with Harper and MacKay's public proclamations.

We should also keep in mind that the 2011 House of Commons Afghan resolution contained language that is arguably relevant to the government's present approach to the Military Police Complaints Commission's investigation:
And it is the opinion of this House that the special Parliamentary Committee on Afghanistan should review the laws and procedures governing the use of operational and national security exceptions for the withholding of information from Parliament, the Courts and the Canadian people with those responsible for administering those laws and procedures, to ensure that Canadians are being provided with ample information on the conduct and progress of the mission;

And it is the opinion of this House that with respect to the transfer of Afghan detainees to Afghan authorities, the Government must:

(c) commit to a policy of greater transparency with respect to its policy on the taking of and transferring of detainees including a commitment to report on the results of reviews or inspections of Afghan prisons undertaken by Canadian officials;
There is an argument to be made that the government is violating the above principles with its onslaught effort to shut down the Military Police Complaints Commission. They've challenged its legal jurisdiction, they're replacing the Chair, there are the allegations above with respect to witness intimidation and there are the liberal invocations of national security exceptions. There's a lot of material to work with here to bolster the case for a parliamentary probe.

The government is strangling this tribunal, there's no reason they couldn't do it to any other.