Committee room showdown

Rob Antle
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Jack Harris on the front line of pending battle over Afghan detainees

Jack Harris sits in one of the grand committee rooms in Parliament's Centre Block, asking questions of three former Canadian ambassadors to Afghanistan.

This committee room is one of many fronts in a battle over Canada's transfer of detainees in Afghanistan, and what Parliament - and the public - is allowed to know on the subject.

Ottawa -

Jack Harris sits in one of the grand committee rooms in Parliament's Centre Block, asking questions of three former Canadian ambassadors to Afghanistan.

This committee room is one of many fronts in a battle over Canada's transfer of detainees in Afghanistan, and what Parliament - and the public - is allowed to know on the subject.

"We think there is lots of evidence the government is hiding the truth here," Harris said in an interview at his Ottawa office. "It's very difficult to get the evidence out - we get mountains of documents with dozens and dozens of pages blacked out."

The matter could come to a head this week, when the Speaker is expected to rule on whether the government must produce uncensored versions of records for MPs to review.

It's a battle that pits Parliament against the executive branch of government.

The decision, said Harris, will be "very significant, historically" on the ability of the House of Commons to hold the government to account.

"It's essentially a showdown at this point," Harris said.

And Harris, the NDP MP for St. John's East, is on the front lines.

He has a motion pending for debate, subject to the Speaker's decision.

That motion would put forward a question of breach of privilege if the government fails to produce the unredacted documents.

If passed, it would set a deadline of 30 days for the government to turn them over.

If not, three cabinet ministers could be held in contempt of Parliament. An election is even possible if the issue becomes a matter of confidence.

"What's at stake is democracy, whether we have a parliamentary democracy or not," Harris said.

He stressed that any sensitive documents would not simply be dumped on the floor of the House of Commons. His motion calls for the special parliamentary committee on Afghanistan to devise procedures that would preserve national security while reviewing the information.

"There's a culture of secrecy going on, a culture of denial of the reality," Harris said.

Other panels are also having little luck getting information.

This week, Military Police Complaints Commission hearings on the issue ground to a halt when government lawyers said they would turn over documents "when they're good and ready."

The government denies that detainees in Canadian custody were turned over to Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security (NDS) to be tortured.

But recent testimony by a former interpreter in Afghanistan threw that contention into doubt.

Harris said the parliamentary committee needs the facts.

"When we're asking our soldiers to go to Afghanistan to risk their lives, to fight for the cause of making improvements to Afghanistan and saving them from the Taliban and that sort of thing, well then we we're fighting for values that Canada holds dear, including the respect for human rights."

He noted that such allegations make it harder for Canadians to convince people in the region they are there to make things better.

"You can't win the hearts and minds of people, in other words, if you're complicit in the negative actions even of their own people."

Harris accused the government of even "censoring the censor" during question period in the House of Commons on Thursday.

"This is a massive coverup of the government's see no evil, hear no evil, hide the evil policy on Afghan detainees," he charged.

Next week, the Speaker is expected to issue his verdict on the question of privilege - a decision that could ratchet up the pressure on the issue even higher.

rantle@thetelegram.com

Organizations: House of Commons, NDP MP, Military Police Complaints Commission NDS Taliban

Geographic location: Afghanistan, Ottawa, Canada St. John's East

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