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Canada stained by actions and denials over Afghan torture

American chief prosecutor Richard Jackson’s 1946 summation to the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal derided the “Nobody never told me ‘nuffin’” defence offered by the Nazi defendants.

American chief prosecutor Richard Jackson’s 1946 summation to the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal derided the “Nobody never told me ‘nuffin’” defence offered by the Nazi defendants. “These men saw no evil, spoke none, and none was uttered in their presence,” Jackson jeered. “They do protest too much. They deny knowing what was common knowledge.” Britain’s chief prosecutor Sir Hartley Shawcross was equally scathing: “What peculiar dispensation of Providence was there that protected them from knowledge of these matters, matters which were their concern?” In 1971 former Nuremberg defendant Albert Speer gave the obvious answer, “If I didn’t see it, then it was because I didn’t want to see it.”

The government backbench chorus howling “No proof! No proof!” denies awareness of Afghan prisoners handed over by Canadian troops being tortured. These MPs would deny being in the middle of a Prairie dust storm. Meanwhile the government scrambles to prevent proof emerging — trying to keep diplomat Richard Colvin from testifying, blacking out much text in the emails he sent, pulling stunts like denying the Commons committee a quorum, and possibly derailing the Military Police Commission inquiry. A Watergate-era jibe fits — what didn’t they know, and when did they stop knowing it?

The allegations surfaced in April 2007 when Globe and Mail writer Graeme Smith discussed events of nearly a year earlier. In this column on May 9, 2007 I mentioned the exculpation offered by Canada’s then Vice Chief of Defence Staff, Walter Natynczyk, that it wasn’t Canadian troops who had roughed up one guy, they had in fact cleared him — but then Afghan police along on the same operation arrested the guy and worked him over. Now on Dec. 9, Chief of Defence Staff Walter Natynczyk announced that contrary to that previous statement, which he had reiterated the day before to a House of Commons committee, he had just learned that Canadian troops had indeed arrested the guy first. But back in 2007 I suggested that Natynczyk was trying to draw a distinction without a difference. It remains that. Whoever arrests suspected Taliban and turns them over to the men swinging the wire cables, Canadian troops are acting with the Afghans, co-operating operationally. If the Afghans go on to torture, we are stained.

That is part of a moral contradiction which has bedeviled the Afghanistan mission from the start. The venture got under way with former American president George W. Bush cutting a deal with dissident elements of Afghan society, which let him topple the Taliban government on the cheap. Sticking around to prevent a Taliban resurgence meant continuing to shore up the quickly installed Afghan stooge government while it got down to running Afghanistan in the traditional way — corruption, opium … and torture.

As Shawcross pointed out, people in authority need to pay attention to matters which are their concern. In early 1946 Canadian Major General Chris Vokes spared Waffen SS Brigadier Kurt Meyer from facing the firing squad for the massacre of Canadian troops only because Vokes felt Meyer’s degree of personal responsibility was not sufficiently established to warrant his death. Less than two months later American General McArthur was less generous about Japanese General Yamashita’s control over troops massacring Filipinos, and hanged him.

St. Albert writer David Haas is a former officer in the regular and reserve forces.