A question on torture for our badass new defence minister

As a high-level intelligence officer in Afghanistan, how likely is it that Harjit Sajjan knew nothing about Canada’s complicity in torture?


From the most diverse cabinet in Canadian history to the large crowds that waited patiently for selfies with our personable PM, the Trudeau government’s swearing-in on November 4 was the perfect photo op.

Yet one of the most unforgettable photos of the day wasn’t of the colourful festivities, marked by what seemed refreshing openness on the part of the new government. Rather, it was an old handout featuring a camouflaged Harjit Sajjan, who had just been named Canada’s minister of national defence, packing serious heat in Afghanistan.

In contrast to his milquetoast predecessors Jason Kenney and Peter MacKay, Sajjan is a decorated former soldier who completed three tours of duty in Afghanistan. He was hailed by the National Observer as “some kind of next-level Spy vs Spy war hero” and praised by his superiors in the military as “the best single Canadian intelligence asset in [the Afghan war] theatre.”

Despite these flattering appraisals, Sajjan’s appointment may reopen the can of worms that former PM Stephen Harper sealed shut when he prorogued Parliament in 2009 –  namely, the Canadian military’s complicity in the torture of Afghan detainees. 

Questions about the detainee scandal and the role of key Canadian decision-makers were effectively shut down with the 2011 election of a Harper majority. But the issue was raised again last week when the Military Police Complaints Commission announced it would investigate a new case in which Canadian soldiers allegedly abused and “terrorized” Afghan detainees at their base in Kandahar.

This probe follows on the heels of the little-publicized release of a new report authored by researcher Omar Sabry for the Rideau Institute and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives on the need for a “transparent and impartial judicial Commission of Inquiry into the actions of Canadian officials, including Ministers of the Crown.” 

Sajjan’s tours and liaison with torture-tainted Afghan authorities including Kandahar governor Asadullah Khalid occurred during an era when significant human rights concerns had been quietly raised by Canada’s foreign affairs representatives. A 2005 report noted that Afghanistan’s “military, intelligence and police forces have been involved in arbitrary arrests, kidnapping, extortion, torture and extrajudicial killing of criminal suspects.”

In 2006, as Harper’s Conservatives took over direction of the war, Canadian whistle-blower diplomat Richard Colvin brought to light a side of the Afghanistan occupation that most Canadians could not square with their traditional perceptions of the military. Terms like “war crimes” were openly used to describe Canadian transfers of detainees to the torture-stained Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS). And the Harper government faced contempt of Parliament proceedings over its refusal to release thousands of documents related to the scandal.

Seven years ago last month, Colvin, who had served 17 months on the ground in Afghanistan, testified before a parliamentary committee that Afghans transferred from Canadian Forces to the NDS commonly faced “beating, whipping with power cables and the use of electricity. Also common were sleep deprivation, use of temperature extremes, use of knives and open flames, and sexual abuse – that is, rape. Torture might be limited to the first days or it could go on for months. According to our information, the likelihood is that all the Afghans we handed over were tortured. For interrogators in Kandahar, it was standard operating procedure.”

Colvin pointed out that many detainees had nothing to do with the Taliban and “were just local people: farmers, truck drivers, tailors, peasants, random human beings in the wrong place at the wrong time, young men in their fields and villages who were completely innocent but were nevertheless rounded up. In other words, we detained and handed over for severe torture a lot of innocent people.”

Colvin’s words were echoed by Canadian translator Ahmadshah Malgarai, a cultural and language adviser. He bravely told the Special Committee on the Canadian Mission in Afghanistan in April 2010 that “there was no one in the Canadian military with a uniform who was involved in any way, at any level, with the detainee transfers who did not know what was going on and what the NDS does to [its] detainees.”

Peggy Mason, a former Canadian disarmament ambassador to the UN and now head of the Rideau Institute, feels strongly that the transfer-to-torture issue is “unfinished business of the most serious kind – accountability [of Canadian officials] for alleged serious breaches of international and national law – the only appropriate remedy for which is a public inquiry.”

But Sajjan may have to recuse himself from any decision about holding such an inquiry. 

As a high-level intelligence officer who appears to have taken an active role in combat operations, it seems implausible that he was not familiar with the torture rampant throughout the Afghan detention system. Indeed, as the Canadian Press reported last week, in 2006 Sajjan became the Canadian “intelligence liaison” to Kandahar governor Khalid. According to Colvin’s testimony, Khalid “was known to us very early on… as an unusually bad actor on human rights issues.”

Colvin added that Khalid “was known to be running a narcotics operation. He had a criminal gang. He had people killed who got in his way.” And in Kandahar he was known to personally torture people in a dungeon under his guest house. Khalid went on to become Afghanistan’s national intelligence chief. 

Sajjan is also credited with the intelligence gathered for operations that led to the “kill or capture” of some 1,500 alleged Taliban members, a military claim made amidst commonplace reference to any detainees as potential Taliban, as opposed to the broader categories of detainees Colvin referenced in his testimony.

NOW attempted to reach Sajjan for comment, but he was unavailable to provide responses to a number of emailed questions.

Given the widespread and well-known use of torture by the NDS in Afghanistan, did he take precautionary measures to ensure that he was not passing on to his superiors information gleaned from torture (especially given his liaison role with governor Khalid)?

As someone identified as Canada’s top intelligence asset in Afghanistan, was Sajjan aware of the transfers of detainees to the NDS and the documentation of torture then publicly available? If so, how did this colour his relationship with Khalid and the NDS? 

When the Harper government closed the case in 2011, Liberal MP Stéphane Dion (now Trudeau’s foreign affairs minister) told the CBC “the likelihood is very high” that Afghan detainees were abused in custody, adding, “I don’t think Canadians will accept that it’s over.”

Liberal promises of transparency may mean that one of the most celebrated of Trudeau’s ministerial appointments will soon be facing a real test of public accountability.

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