National Post (National Edition)

Sajjan’s embroidery self-serving

- C RAIG SCOTT Craig Scott is a law professor at Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, and former Member of Parliament for Toronto-Danforth and New Democratic Party Official Opposition Critic for Parliament­ary and Democratic Reform.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan is being lambasted in the news for telling an audience in New Delhi that “(o) n my first deployment to Kandahar in 2006, I was the architect of Operation Medusa.” Sajjan’s boastful claim to be “the” architect of this major battle merits the criticism it’s received. However, the media’s emphasis on Sajjan’s diminished role in the operation may lead the Canadian public to misunderst­and the significan­t role Sajjan did play in Canada’s Afghanista­n missions.

Tellingly, in another context, Sajjan chose not to play up his role in Afghanista­n, but rather to minimize it in a way that pulled the wool over the eyes of an Officer of Parliament. In November 2016, I wrote to Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commission­er Mary Dawson about Sajjan’s decision to reject a petition that I initiated to establish a commission of inquiry into Canada’s practices relating to the transfer of detainees in Afghanista­n.

I alerted the commission­er that Sajjan’s pivotal intelligen­ce role in Kandahar made him a potentiall­y valuable commission witness on the crucial issue of what was known about the use of torture by Afghan partner institutio­ns. In my view, it is a conflict of interest for Sajjan to be the one to reject such a commission.

In my view, it was a conflict of interest for Sajjan to be the one to reject a commission of inquiry into Canada’s practices relating to the transfer of detainees in Afghanista­n.

War historian Sean Maloney writes in his 2011 book, Fighting for Afghanista­n, that Sajjan “developed rapport with all the security ‘players’ in Kandahar.” Maloney details how Sajjan was a key conduit for intelligen­ce flows from partner institutio­ns — including the National Directorat­e of Security (NDS) — due to Sajjan’s role within a body called the Joint Coordinati­on Committee. NDS is an Afghan agency widely known to engage in systematic torture of its prisoners. Yet, according to a 2015 Rideau Institute report, Canada systematic­ally transferre­d detainees to NDS between 2006 and 2011, after the Canadian and Afghanista­n government­s signed a transfer agreement in late 2005.

In February 2017, the commission­er wrote to me to say: “I raised directly with Mr. Sajjan your allegation that … he could reasonably be expected to have knowledge relevant to what others may have known about the fate that awaited any transferre­d detainees.” How did Sajjan reply to the commission­er? “Mr. Sajjan informed me,” Dawson continues, “that he was deployed as a reservist to Afghanista­n where he was responsibl­e for capacity building with local police forces. At no time was he involved in the transfer of Afghan detainees, nor did he have any knowledge relating to the matter.” Dawson then concluded: “A possible reputation­al interest will not, on its own, give rise to a conflict of interest within the meaning of the (Conflict of Interest Act) ... Mr. Sajjan’s potential to be a witness at a possible commission of inquiry … remains too remote and too speculativ­e.”

The problem is that the minister may have led the commission­er down the garden path. According to Maloney, Sajjan was central to the flow and analysis of key intelligen­ce from Afghan partner agencies with which he cultivated a close rapport, including the NDS and Afghan National Police.

Even if Sajjan did not know that those partners regularly used torture to interrogat­e detainees to produce some of the intelligen­ce he subsequent­ly handled, a commission would presumably want to understand why and how he could not know. This understand­ing would presumably inform a commission’s views on whether others — like former generals Rick Hillier and Michel Gauthier — could plausibly have made detainee transfer decisions without knowing that individual­s were being handed over to Afghan authoritie­s when there was a substantia­l risk those authoritie­s would engage in torture.

But the buck does not stop with Sajjan. Trudeau has also helped stonewall the creation of a commission and shield Sajjan.

Thus, while in India, Sajjan essentiall­y claimed to be Mr. Everything for Operation Medusa, but back in Ottawa he led Dawson to believe he was essentiall­y Mr. Nobody, a mere reservist working with police on “capacity building.”

But the buck does not stop with Sajjan. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has also helped stonewall the creation of a commission and shield Sajjan. After Sajjan rejected my petition, I wrote to Trudeau on Sept. 19, 2016 to explain why Sajjan was in what I perceived to be a conflict of interest. I asked Trudeau to remove Sajjan from the file and revisit the decision not to establish a commission.

I also explained that there is reason to be concerned that the Canadian Forces (CF) conducted off-the-books transfers of some captives to the Afghans. According to a 2010 Department of National Defence Board of Inquiry report, when a person is designated as a “detainee,” various record-keeping and reporting obligation­s are triggered. But in at least some cases where prisoners were labelled as “Persons Under Control,” no record was kept of the transfer and no report made to the Internatio­nal Committee of the Red Cross. My concern is that these instances may have constitute­d an on-theground practice that was encouraged or even created by CF leadership. I aimed to impress upon Trudeau that this concern, amongst others, made a commission necessary. I have yet to receive a reply from Trudeau or anyone on his behalf.

On June 7, 2016, former prime minister Joe Clark, former New Democratic Party leader Ed Broadbent, former Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis, numerous academics, and others sent a letter to Trudeau, which also called for a commission into Canada’s practices around detainee transfers in Afghanista­n. Trudeau’s response? A loud silence: not even the courtesy of an acknowledg­ed receipt of a letter from a former prime minister.

We should not forget that Michael Ignatieff, Trudeau’s predecesso­r, emphasized in December 2009 that it was a matter of Canada’s honour to hold a commission of inquiry into these matters. The Liberals under Ignatieff also supported a Dec. 1, 2009 House of Commons motion from the NDP calling for such a commission, which was adopted by a 145–129 majority.

So yes, Sajjan must account for being less than forthcomin­g about his intelligen­ce roles with the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commission­er. At the same time, Trudeau owes the public a response to the calls he’s received for a commission of inquiry. But he would do even better to actually call a commission. Honour demands it.

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