By: David Pugliese, Defence Watch
Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan’s work in the Canadian Forces, which included setting the stage for the killing or capture of some 1,500 Afghan insurgents, is enough to disqualify him from making the decision not to conduct a public inquiry into alleged abuses of detainees, say those pushing for such an investigation.
Sajjan, who could have been a potential witness for any Afghan inquiry, has dismissed outright the need for such an investigation even as new abuse allegations emerge.
Last week, Sajjan responded to an e-petition calling for the inquiry by stating the Canadian government ensured detainees were humanely treated, transferred or released in accordance with international law. That is a reversal of the Liberal’s demands, when in opposition, for a public inquiry.
But those advocating for the inquiry say Sajjan’s three tours in Afghanistan as a member of the Canadian Forces puts him in a conflict of interest.
“Does the fact that he was a senior officer in Kandahar at the time disqualify him from having oversight on this issue?” asked human rights lawyer Paul Champ. “Frankly, I think it does.
“He had relevant operational or on-the- scene information that could well be of interest to a commission of inquiry,” Champ added.
Retired Brig.-Gen. David Fraser has said Sajjan’s work as an intelligence officer and his activities in Afghanistan helped lay the foundation for a military operation that led to the death or capture of more than 1,500 insurgents. Sajjan was also later assigned to U.S. military forces.
The detainee issue has emerged on the Canadian political scene once again. Some Canadian military police officers say Afghan detainees were abused in their cells in Kandahar during surprise raids by Canadian guards in 2010 and 2011. A Defence Department document obtained by the Citizen acknowledges problems with the raids, noting the police who conducted the missions operated without oversight and lacked guidance.
In addition, military police officers have come forward to raise concerns that many Afghans taken prisoner by Canadian troops were innocent farmers and not members of the Taliban.
Such concerns were also highlighted back in 2007 when the head of Afghanistan’s intelligence agency also warned Canadian troops were grabbing innocent Afghans.
Canadian military officers have privately complained the detention of innocent Afghans may have helped push them to support the Taliban.
Sajjan, however, has said that in his three tours of Afghanistan he was never involved in any situations involving detainees.
“I wasn’t involved in this,” he explained last week. “I was using my experience as a police officer, engaging with the community, and one thing I can say is that the Canadian Armed Forces personnel, (with) the training that they have, abide by the Geneva Conventions and everybody who I served with, served with absolute credibility and honour.”
But some Canadian military police have disputed such statements.
Craig Scott, a law professor and former NDP MP who initiated the e-petition rejected by the minister, said Sajjan had dealings with Afghan officials, some of whom were later accused of torturing people. “(Sajjan) would be an absolute key witness” at an inquiry, Scott said.
Scott said because the treatment of detainees was never properly investigated by the Conservative government, the issue continues to be raised by some in the military concerned about incidents they saw in Afghanistan.
“It’s a festering sore that was never dealt with properly,” he added.