Minister of Defence Harjit Sajjan arrives at CFB Trenton in Trenton, Ont., on Thursday, June 8, 2017.
The federal ethics commissioner says Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan may have downplayed his role and knowledge of the handling of Afghan detainees when he denied any involvement whatsoever with such prisoners.
But Mary Dawson does not see any reason to find Sajjan in a conflict of interest for his refusal to open an inquiry into detainee abuse.
Dawson’s finding was relayed in a letter Tuesday to Craig Scott, a law professor and former NDP MP. Scott and others have been pushing for a public inquiry into the abuse of Afghan detainees.
Scott had argued that Sajjan’s work in the Canadian Forces, which included setting the stage for the killing or capture of Afghan insurgents, was enough to disqualify him from making the decision against such an inquiry.
Sajjan originally told Dawson he was never involved with detainees.
But her questioning of the minister’s claim could provide more fuel to opposition MPs who have accused Sajjan of a pattern of misleading statements.
Sajjan had to apologize in May for falsely claiming he was the “architect” of the Canadian-led Operation Medusa, a major battle in 2006 against the Taliban. Conservative MPs have also questioned Sajjan’s claim that allies didn’t object when Canada withdrew its CF-18s from Iraq. The Conservatives have obtained government documents that indicated otherwise.
Dawson’s letter on Tuesday is the result of complaints filed by Scott. The ethics commissioner determined in February that Sajjan wasn’t in a conflict on the detainee issue. She pointed out the minister had told her that he was a reservist involved in policing and had no knowledge of information about the transfer of Afghan detainees.
Citing Sajjan’s explanation, Dawson closed her investigation.
But Scott requested she reconsider her ruling. He pointed out that Sajjan told military historian Sean Maloney he was involved in intelligence gathering and worked regularly with the governor of Kandahar and the head of the National Directorate of Security, both of whom have been accused of organizing the torture of suspected Taliban fighters in violation of international law. In a 2006 letter Sajjan’s commanding officer in Afghanistan, brigadier general David Fraser, described him as an intelligence officer who “singlehandedly changed the face of intelligence gathering and analysis in Afghanistan.”
That prompted Dawson to re-examine her ruling but she still concluded Sajjan was not in a conflict of interest. “While the new information you have shared with me in your letter dated April 14, 2017 suggests that Mr. Sajjan’s account of his time in Afghanistan may have been downplayed, both in respect of his role and in respect of his knowledge of the Afghan detainee situation, I remain of the view that the interests alleged in your letter are not captured within the meaning of ‘private interests’ under the Act,” Dawson wrote.
She noted that a perception of bias does not translate into a conflict of interest under the law. Dawson wrote Scott that she will “not pursue this matter further.”
While in opposition, the Liberals demanded a public inquiry into the Afghan detainee issue. But once in power, the Liberal government rejected such an investigation.
But allegations of abuse of prisoners have not gone away. In 2015, a military police officer came forward to raise concerns that fellow police terrorized detainees during a series of incidents in Kandahar in 2010 and 2011. In November 2015, the Military Police Complaints Commission began looking into that case.
Scott and others have been pushing for a wider inquiry into how detainees were treated during the Canadian mission in Afghanistan.
In an email exchange last month with Postmedia, Jordan Owens, a spokesperson for Sajjan, did not answer a question regarding why the minister claimed a different role in the Afghan war in public than he did when talking to the ethics commissioner. But in an emailed statement, Owens claimed Sajjan was not responsible for the letter refusing to open an inquiry, even though the document bears his name and signature.
“There were consultations between multiple government departments and the Privy Council Office designated National Defence as the office that would respond on behalf of the Government,” Owens stated. “This was not Minister Sajjan’s decision; he was conveying a government decision.”
What Sajjan told Dawson is different than the details he gave to Maloney, the military historian. Conversations with the ethics commissioner typically remain private, but in a Feb. 27 letter obtained by the National Post, Dawson summarized her conversation with the defence minister: “Mr. Sajjan informed me 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,” she wrote.
With files from Zane Schwartz