The Canadian government was fending off calls for a public inquiry on torture today after allegations from one of its senior diplomats that Canada was complicit in the torture of Afghan detainees.
Richard Colvin, who was second in command at Canada's Kabul embassy in 2006 and 2007, said that Afghans swept up in security sweeps by Canadian troops during that time were routinely handed over to the Afghan intelligence services.
"According to our information, the likelihood is that all the Afghans we handed over were tortured," Colvin told Canada's parliament. "For interrogators in Kandahar, it was standard operating procedure.
"In other words, we detained, and handed over for severe torture, a lot of innocent people."
Colvin said his frequent memos about the abuse were ignored and that senior officials attempted to cover up Canada's complicity until prisoner transfer procedures were changed in 2007, partly as a result of his complaints.
The allegations have shocked a country that generally regards itself as an upholder of humanitarian values and intensified scrutiny of Canada's military presence in Afghanistan. Canada has about 2,800 troops based in Kandahar province, who are due to be withdrawn in 2011.
The government has denied the allegations and attacked Colvin's credibility.
"There are incredible holes in the story that have to be examined," the defence minister, Peter MacKay, told parliament yesterday, arguing that Colvin had based his accounts on Taliban propaganda. He rejected opposition calls for a public inquiry.
"It doesn't stand the test of cross-examination. It doesn't stand the test of credibility," MacKay said.
Government attacks on Colvin's credibility have been undermined by its admission that it acted on his complaints about the treatment of detainees in May 2007, a year after he began sending memos. Colvin now holds a senior intelligence post in the Washington embassy.
Colvin said his complaints about the torture of Afghans were "mostly ignored" for a year. After that he was told by government officials to keep quiet and to express his concerns by telephone rather than put them on paper.
He said "the paper trail on detainees" was reduced after the arrival of Arif Lalani, Canada's ambassador in Kabul from May 2007. "Reports on detainees began sometimes to be censored with crucial information removed," he said.
Senior Canadian officials and military officers deny having seen Colvin's dispatches. General Rick Hillier, who commanded Canadian forces in Kandahar in 2006 and has since retired, said: "I don't remember reading a single one of those cables ... He doesn't stick out in my mind."
Hillier rejected the allegation that Canada was complicit in war crimes and compared the uproar to "howling at the moon".
"Even in our own prisons somebody can get beaten up," he said. "We know that."
Gordon O'Connor, Canada's defence minister in 2006 and 2007, suggested yesterday that Colvin's memos might not have travelled all the way up the government hierarchy.
"Reports like this may have occurred and gone through the system and people at lower levels may have decided there's no credibility to different reports," O'Connor said.