Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 11, 2002
Afghan prisoners worry churches
By ART BABYCH
Canadian Catholic News
Defence Minister Art Eggleton's revelation that Canadian troops were turning over Afghan prisoners to the United States has drawn fire from political and church quarters.
Eggleton confirmed in the House of Commons Jan. 29 that Canadian special forces captured two or three fighters in Afghanistan and handed them over to the United States, which does not recognize al Qaeda and Taliban fighters as prisoners of war. The next day, he admitted he had known about the incident since Jan. 21, but did not inform Prime Minister Jean Chretien until after Chretien called the Canadians' capture "hypothetical" Jan. 29.
International law states that such prisoners should receive "fair and humane treatment" whether they are called unlawful combatants or prisoners of war. But the Church Council of Justice and Corrections said it was worried that, without guarantees of due process, the prisoners could receive the death penalty, which has been abolished in Canada.
"Canada finds itself at a moral and legal crossroads in determining its military and justice response, both alone, and in collaboration with its allies," said the church council's president, Michael Maher, in a letter to Eggleton.
"We find it incongruent and objectionable that our Canadian government will uphold due process from our courts and not tolerate executions in this country while, at the same time, our Canadian government, in its foreign policy, will hand over people to another country who are still trying to figure out their policy on due process for these detainees and who favor the death penalty," he said.
Maher also noted there is debate in the United States over whether the detainees are prisoners of war and how to interpret international treaties and whether the agreements should apply.
The Church Council of Justice and Corrections, whose denominational members include the Catholic Church, pointed out that the Supreme Court of Canada voted unanimously last year that two Canadian men could not be extradited to Washington to face murder charges without assurances from the United States that they would not face the death penalty.
"The Supreme Court noted that their Canadian nationality was a marginal issue for the matter it was ruling on -- that Canada's abolitionist stance was fundamental in our view of life, at home and abroad, for Canadians, and for anyone else," said Maher.
Chretien told the House of Commons that the court judgment applies only for people "living on Canadian territory." The Canadian charter of rights does not cover the prisoners captured in Afghanistan by Canadian troops, he added. However, he said, the prisoners would be "treated according to international law."
Some opposition members of Parliament, including New Democratic Party leader Alexia McDonough, were not satisfied.
"Secret tribunals leading to the death penalty are not Canadian values," she said. "This government may choose to wear a moral blindfold, but Canadians care a great deal about what we stand for at home."
The church council said by not seeking guarantees from the U.S. government, Canada shares responsibility for what happens to the detainees.
"We believe this touches on certain principles that many in our country consider sacrosanct," the letter said. "There are courageous moral lines in the sand, and we cross them at peril of the diminishment of every human being and our civilization."