Prime Minister Stephen Harper has just rung in Parliament's holiday season by inviting its contempt. His refusal to release documents that would shed light on Canada's handling of Afghan detainees risks provoking a crisis the moment the House of Commons returns on Jan. 25.
In a resolution put forward last Thursday by Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff's party, the Commons ordered the government to produce uncensored documents dealing with detainee transfers. "We must have the truth, uncensored and unredacted," Ignatieff said. "The government must account for an entire year of wilful blindness." But on Friday, Ottawa said only "legally available" files would be released.
Harper pleads "national security," the safety of our troops, and relations with allies to justify not producing the goods. But he would be smarter to comply. MPs can sift the evidence behind closed doors if need be to meet the Prime Minister's concerns.
Harper's concerns pale beside the spectacle of the minority Conservative government frustrating not only Parliament's will but also the public's right to know whether Ottawa deliberately turned a blind eye to abuse of detainees. The Conservatives may be held in contempt of Parliament unless they change tack.
Canadians did not elect a politburo in last year's federal election. They elected a minority Parliament that can survive only as long as it commands a degree of opposition support. Harper is squandering that support with his reflexive secrecy, abrasive partisanship and compulsive stonewalling.
Most Canadians now believe the government knew there was a strong possibility that prisoners would be tortured after they were handed over. And with reason.
Gen. Walter Natynczyk, Chief of Defence Staff, has confirmed that Canadian troops did hand over a detainee on June 19, 2006, to the Afghan police, who promptly beat him. Our troops took him back into custody. That explodes Harper's claim that there was "no evidence" of abuse. There was. And he should have known.
How can Harper and his entire cabinet have been oblivious to the risk detainees faced, for so long, when so many were concerned?
The Canadian troops involved in the 2006 beating duly reported it. They reported that similar abuse "had happened in the past." They were worried enough to take photos of their prisoners before transferring them. Diplomat Richard Colvin raised concerns. So did the Red Cross, our British and Dutch allies, the media and rights groups.
Against all this, Ottawa's readiness to continue transferring prisoners, and its denial that a problem existed, is incomprehensible.
Equally incomprehensible is why Harper has allowed this scandal to spiral out of control. Canadians would no doubt have cut Harper some slack for fumbling the ball in his early days in power. After all, he inherited an inadequate detainee transfer policy from his Liberal predecessors and renegotiated stronger safeguards in the spring of 2007, albeit only after allegations of abuse hit the front pages.
But Harper has turned a problem into a crisis by obstinately refusing to admit that Canadian troops did recklessly turn over prisoners, and by trying to discredit Colvin and obstruct any meaningful inquiry.
He should bow to Parliament's better judgment and clear the air.
This increasing effort to keep everything secret from the public is a big step toward tyranny.