Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

"The detainees of Dukah," March 12, 2007.

or Why Somalia was the end of peacekeeping

The long shadow of Somalia keeps working its way into the news. Of late most awkwardly and obtrusively, while Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor and Chief of Defence Staff General Rick Hiller were defending Canadian troops against suspicions of wrong-doing.

Arguably more important was the story that gave rise to their remarks in the first place.

In very careful language, Amir Attaran, an immunologist and law professor at the University of Ottawa was calling for a public investigation into the situation of three Afghan civilians arrested by Canadian troops and turned over to the Afghan national police last April.

Attaran's concerns were based on documents he obtained under the Access to Information Act.

In an interview with CBC, Attaran says he received about 400 pages of “heavily censored” documents, including handwritten reports from Canadian military police in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar.

The documents describe three men who were arrested in the village of Dukah and brought to Kandahar Air Field by a single interrogator in a single day. The three had black eyes, cuts on the forehead, cuts on the eyebrows, and cuts on the cheeks. None of them had injuries to their lower bodies.

"While the military has admitted that the three prisoners in question did sustain injuries when in CAF custody, it maintains that these were the result of CAF personnel applying 'appropriate force' to capture one of the three and to subduing the other two, who were respectively 'non-compliant' and 'extremely belligerent,' after their capture.The military log, however, states that their injuries included lacerations on the eyebrows, bruises and swelling of both eyes, facial cuts, abrasions, and multiple bruises on upper arms, back and chest and that at least some of these injuries were sustained while the prisoners’ hands were tied” (Parsons WSWF Feb 16 07).

According to Attaran, “the men did not receive the usual medical examination that detainees get. The medical documents are blank.”

"It seems to me,” he said, “that if one interrogator has brought in three people in a single day with very similar injuries, this is something that merits investigation." (CBC Feb 6 07)

In an interview with the World Socialist Website, Attaran details the static he got from the Department of National Defence. When he asked a copy of the agreement that Canada had signed with Afghanistan concerning the transfer of detainees, he was told "it’s not public, I couldn’t have it." He says,

"Now I did persist and said, 'Excuse me, that agreement would be a treaty. It’s an agreement signed between two countries, ie., a treaty. Are you telling me Canada’s getting involved in secret treaties?' And I was told, 'No, no—its not a treaty.' And I said, 'Well as a law professor, I assure you, it is a treaty. I know what a treaty is, and this is a treaty, and it’s apparently secret.' And then all sorts of games were played defining it as 'an arrangement' rather than a treaty, which is nonsense. I mean they can call it potato salad if they like; it doesn’t change into anything other than a treaty.

"So initially, there was no disclosure. The document finally only became public because it was leaked. And within days of it leaking, all of a sudden DND put it on its website."

O'Connor and Hillier finally began to respond too.

Hillier said, “We learned many lessons from Somalia. One is responsibility of chain of command; one is thorough training and preparation, and policies that are in place.”

O'Connor said, “This isn't Somalia. Let's get the scale properly.”

But Canadians who followed the Somalia Affair day after day, if the case of the three detainees of Dukah village makes them think of Somalia at all, may be more inclined to recall the opening paragraphs of the Commission of Inquiry into the Deployment of Canadian Forces to Somalia.

It begins, unceremoniously, “From its earliest moments the operation went awry,” and goes on to place responsibility squarely on the leadership.

“Many of the leaders called before us to discuss their roles in the various phases of the deployment refused to acknowledge error. When pressed, they blamed their subordinates who, in turn, cast responsibility upon those below them. They assumed this posture reluctantly -- but there is no honour to be found here -- only after their initial claims -- that the root of many of the most serious problems resided with 'a few bad apples' -- proved hollow.”

Back in the present, the refusal to disclose that has become all too familiar during the Maher Arar Inquiry was compounded by outright ignorance.

On May 31, O'Connor told the House of Commons, "The Red Cross or the Red Crescent is responsible to supervise their treatment once the prisoners are in the hands of the Afghan authorities. If there is something wrong with their treatment, the Red Cross or Red Crescent would inform us and we would take action."

But Simon Schorno, a spokesman for the ICRC, told the Globe and Mail plainly, “"We were informed of the agreement, but we are not a party to it and we are not monitoring the implementation of it."

The ICRC also said that it would never divulge to Ottawa any abuses it might identify in Afghan prisons.

Amnesty International and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association have said that they are taking legal action to stop Canadian soldiers from handing over their prisoners in Kandahar to Afghan security forces.

But that hasn't taken the sting out of the news this month from Maj. Robert Bell, a senior operations officer for the Canadian National Investigation Service, who confirmed in a phone interview with the Globe and Mail that Military Police have been unable to find the three men Canadian troops handed over to Afghan National Police on April 8, 2006.

Then the Somalia Affair cast its long shadow again for the second time in as many weeks. Brian Stewart, senior correspondent at CBC's The National, was wrapping his special report on Col. Serge Labbe who had been the commander in charge in Somalia when Canadian peacekeepers tortured and beat to death Shidane Arone, a 16-year-old Somali boy they had trapped with food. The military leadership was criticized for trying to cover up the death.

Labbe has evidently done his penance and will take over command of Canada's Strategic Advisory Team in Kabul, a unit of 15 officers working closely with the government of Afghanistan to help with national planning.

"I think the long shadow of Somalia is now over," Stewart concluded. "The years of apologies are over. It's time to move on."

Then O'Connor had to go and wreck it in a fit of cocky, dark humour fit for militarists of the Somalia generation.

“Everybody can be found,” the minister confidently told CTV's Question Period.“We'll wait and see whether they are missing or not,” he said. “I'll just let the thing take its course,” he said, unable to give any details surrounding the disappearance of the detainees.

If that sounds too much like the refusal to acknowledge error the Somali Inquiry found among the Canadian military leadership, it has to be said on O'Connor's behalf that he is now in Afghanistan talking to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission making sure that they actually do monitor what happens to detainees captured by Canadians as he has been saying they do.

For an mp3 of the broadcast

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