Military probe of reported torture videos still silent after more than a year

·4 min read
Iraqi riot police cordon off the heavily fortified Green Zone as demonstrators gather in Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, July 12, 2020. More than a year after it was launched, a military police investigation of alleged torture videos involving Iraqi police trainees has yet to report any conclusions. (Khalid Mohammed/Associated Press - image credit)
Iraqi riot police cordon off the heavily fortified Green Zone as demonstrators gather in Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, July 12, 2020. More than a year after it was launched, a military police investigation of alleged torture videos involving Iraqi police trainees has yet to report any conclusions. (Khalid Mohammed/Associated Press - image credit)

More than 14 months after launching an investigation, Canada's military police have yet to report on what — if anything — Canadian commanders did after being confronted by videos showing alleged atrocities involving Iraqi police being trained as part of a multinational program.

The slow pace of the investigation troubles the federal New Democrats — while a prominent human rights lawyer says the Department of National Defence (DND) has a history of downplaying or even ignoring acts of torture committed by allies.

In the spring of 2021, Postmedia reported that Canadian soldiers were shown videos of possible war crimes shot by their Iraqi students in 2018, soon after arriving at a U.S.-led training base near Mosul, the country's second-largest city. Mosul had been liberated recently from the grip of Islamic State extremists.

The videos allegedly showed Iraqi security forces raping a woman to death, along with multiple gruesome images of Islamic State prisoners being tortured and executed.

The trainers, alarmed at the prospect of training possible war criminals, informed the Canadian contingent commander. The commander told the instructors not to look at any such videos and promised to raise the matter with the chain of command.

It's not clear if the Canadians on the ground took up the issue with the U.S. commander of the base. It's not known outside of military circles how much military and civilian leaders in Ottawa knew about the matter.

In June of last year, sources with knowledge of the case told CBC News that some Canadian soldiers who had trained Iraqi police in the finer points of counter-terrorism had been interviewed by military police.

Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press
Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press

The country's top military commander, Gen. Wayne Eyre, told CBC News at the time that he had ordered an investigation to establish the facts.

Asked last week about the progress of the investigation, a DND spokesperson said the file is still open.

"The investigation into the matter is ongoing and no further detail can be provided at this time," head of DND media relations Dan Le Bouthillier said in an email.

Le Bouthillier added that troops of the 3rd Battalion Royal Canadian Regiment who were affected by what they reported witnessing were offered counselling — including something called "enhanced post-deployment screening," which takes place up to six months after deployment.

'Turning a blind eye'

The troops said they were shown the videos by their Iraqi students on Sept. 18, 2018. While they voiced their concerns immediately, the absence of any action by their commanders prompted more complaints after the trainers arrived home at Garrison Petawawa in Ontario.

On Oct. 20, 2020 — over two years after the deployment — the commander of the battalion and the regimental sergeant-major convened a town hall to brief troops on how their reports about the videos were handled and give them a forum to express their concerns.

Human rights lawyer Paul Champ — who headed the legal challenge over torture allegations involving Canada's transfer of suspected Taliban fighters during the Afghan war — said the current Iraqi investigation clearly is not a DND priority, is likely incomplete and is probably going nowhere.

"The Canadian military has a very troubling history of turning a blind eye to torture," Champ told CBC News.

"There's all kinds of examples where Canada just perversely turns a blind eye rather than taking, you know, the proper steps under international law."

He said Canada has an obligation to ensure that "torture committed by anyone is properly investigated."

Colin Perkel/Canadian Press
Colin Perkel/Canadian Press

During the Canadian combat deployment in Kandahar, Ottawa initially agreed to hand over captured Taliban suspects to Afghan authorities — and did not retain the right to check on their welfare afterwards to ensure they were not being tortured in the course of interrogation.

It was only after reports of abuse surfaced in the media that the Conservative government of the day implemented a monitoring regime.

Under international law, Canada has a responsibility to ensure the people it hands over to other nations do not face the threat of torture.

Similarly, once the torture videos viewed by Canadian trainers in Iraq were reported up the Canadian chain of command, those commanders had a duty to report any such evidence of torture to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nations. It would be up to that agency to determine whether a war crime had been committed.

Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press
Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press

"It wouldn't surprise me if this matter isn't being taken seriously," said Champ. "The big question is how high [up the chain] it went.

"You would like to think that whoever learned about those videos reported them up the chain. Back in Ottawa, you know, what level of general did this stop at? And what did that person do or not do?"

Federal New Democrats say the allegations by Canadian soldiers are deeply troubling and the Liberal government is failing to protect the troops.

"Our soldiers should never be put in the position of working with war criminals and any such concerns they raise must immediately be treated seriously when they come up," said Lindsay Mathyssen, the NDP critic for national defence.

"New Democrats support a full investigation to determine what exactly happened and call on the government to set up adequate whistleblowing mechanisms to ensure this never happens again."