Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of May 7, 2007
Torture dilemma demands ethical response – Jesuit
Canada is complicit if its Taliban prisoners are tortured by Afghan authorities
By DEBORAH GYAPONG
Canadian Catholic News
If Canadian soldiers are handing Taliban captives over to Afghan authorities, knowing they face torture, the soldiers, their commanding officers and the Canadian government are complicit and morally compromised, says Jesuit Father John Perry.
In a telephone interview, the author of Torture, Religious ethics and National security (Novalis 2005) said there is enough evidence that the Afghan prison system applies torture "just in case someone knows something" as routinely as North American police take DNA samples.
Perry, a professor at St. Paul's College at the University of Manitoba, said even a suspicion that handing over prisoners to torture demands that one adopts the conservative position.
"We can't smugly say they promised us they won't do this and we believe them."
Allegations that Afghan officials are torturing Taliban captives have dogged Canadian officials for months. Most recently an April 23 Globe and Mail story based on 30 face-to-face interviews with prisoners reported they claimed to have been beaten, starved and otherwise mistreated.
Counterterrorism expert John Thompson, a Catholic, is more skeptical of the Globe's allegations. In a telephone interview from Toronto April 23, he said Jihadis have all been instructed to say they've been tortured.
"The claim is always there. Often there is no physical evidence of torture at all."
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Defence Minister Gordon O'Connor have stated they are satisfied with assurances from the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission that they will monitor prisoner treatment. But the Globe reported April 24 the AIHRC does not have the staff to do so.
Human rights experts have also warned Canada could be in violation of international law and guilty of possible war crimes.
Perry said the agreement with the Afghan government and AIHRC should be torn up and Canada should start over, or possibly look at creating its own detention facilities. Human rights experts have also suggested NATO forces construct them.
However, Perry noted that could create an "Abu Ghraib" situation where Canadian soldiers might end up abusing detainees the way American soldiers did at the notorious Iraqi prison. "We could easily get involved in messy situations if we have to hold and interrogate prisoners ourselves," he said.
Thompson said Canada should do its own investigation. If torture is proven, Canada should not turn prisoners over to the Afghans but find another way to detain them.
He warned, however, allegations would flood out from any Canadian-run facility, too.
No complaints have been levelled against Canadian soldiers, who were praised in the Globe report for their gentle handling of the prisoners.
Thompson said different ideas of what constitutes torture create a large grey area, making it easy to move from light grey to dark grey. "It's easy to criticize the crossover point for someone else when you yourself have never encountered the situation. It's easy to have high standards when you're safe," he said.
There is a universal understanding, however, that electric shocks and beating constitute torture. "I would be shocked if Canadian troops were using these techniques," Thompson said. Torture dehumanizes both the subject and the interrogator, he said.
The Taliban, however, are not just local peasants, but include many international terrorists who do have the intelligence to save human life elsewhere, he said. "Allegations of torture, which often turn out to be grossly exaggerated, have inhibited the gathering of effective intelligence."
Perry said the ancient Roman legal system permitted torture. "Torture was always seen as a very risky, dangerous, problematic thing to do, but it was considered the best and the quickest way to get the information they needed."
Church teaching is clear: torture is never permissible, even for the gravest reasons, Perry said.
Perry noted a recent story about a leaked British intelligence document revealing that Al Qaeda members in Iraq are planning an attack with a casualty level of Hiroshima or Nagasaki. But even if British officials had a plotter in custody, it would be wrong to torture, according to Church teachings, he said.
Torture most often results in victims telling whatever they think their torturers want to hear, often making the information unreliable, Perry said. In 1995, in the case of Abdul Hakim Murad, however, the methods used by Philippine officials, who broke ribs, burned him with cigarettes and forced water down his throat, obtained truthful information.
Murad revealed an international plot to bomb 12 planes in Asia that would have led to a death toll of 4,000 people; a plan to fly a plane into CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia and schemes to assassinate Pope John Paul II during his visit to Manila and to assassinate U.S. President Bill Clinton.
Murad and co-conspirators, including the mastermind of the first World Trade Center bombing, were eventually convicted in 1996.
Perry said the Murad case illustrates one of the difficulties in the Church's ethical position. There are going to be situations where you will have a real terrorist, you will have a plot and you will have lives at stake.
"War always makes ethics hellish," he said. "Ethical decisions in the middle of war are awful to make."
"It's one thing for the Catholic Church to officially take a position; it's another thing for it to work itself out on the ground," he said.
Thompson said it is important to remember the fact the Taliban tortured and murdered girls for going to school. They also killed boys for playing soccer. The relatively minor lapses of Canadian and American troops are magnified by news media safely embedded with those troops, but reporting the beheadings and genuine atrocities "from the heart of the jihad movement" is much more difficult, creating a double standard.