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Feds should come clean on child soldier detainees: opposition

BRYN WEESE, Parliamentary Bureau
Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon speaks to the media in Ottawa on November 29, 2010. (JOHN MAJOR/QMI Agency)

Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon speaks to the media in Ottawa on November 29, 2010. (JOHN MAJOR/QMI Agency)

OTTAWA - The opposition is calling on the feds to come clean with how many children they've captured in the fight against the Taliban and how many have been transferred to those accused of torturing adult insurgents.

Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon admitted in question period Monday that "in some cases" what he called "juveniles" are detained because it's not always easy to determine someone's age.

"As a result, the Canadian Forces treat those who appear to be under the age of 18 as juveniles," Cannon said. "Consequently, if there is any question of age, the prisoner is treated as a juvenile with separate quarters."

Documents obtained by the CBC show the Canadian Forces were well aware that they had detained child soldiers and transferred them to the National Directorate of Security in Afghanistan, or NDS, for the past four years until a new juvenile detention and rehabilitation facility was built.

The NDS has been accused of torturing detainees during interrogations and forcing confessions.

The NDP and Liberals called on the government Monday to fess up about what it knew regarding the child detainee issue.

"The government knows perfectly well that the NDS practices torture. Why did Canada transfer child soldiers to the NDS torturers?" said NDP Deputy Leader Thomas Mulcair. "How many children have been arrested? How many have been transferred? And how many have been tortured?"

Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae said children involved in conflict need to be treated differently as per international laws, "so we have to make sure that this has been followed up very carefully."

"It's absolutely necessary to make sure that no transfers take place until we're absolutely certain that the Afghan authorities accept all of their obligations to treat children in a specific way," Rae said. "I don't think we have the evidence that that's been done yet."

According to the documents, Defence Minister Peter MacKay was briefed on the issue in March 2010, and that children had been detained and transferred to the NDS for the past four years.

The briefing note also suggests a recent change in Canadian policy that would send all detained children to a new juvenile detention facility could draw more attention to the issue.

Human rights lawyer Paul Champ said the issue of child soldiers being transferred to the NDS are worrisome, given the allegations of torture that surround the adults the Canadian Forces had transferred to the NDS earlier in the war.

"The government's policy to all detainees, children or otherwise, has been to get them out of our hands and ensure they're not our responsibility as quickly as possible," Champ said Monday. "To the extent we have concerns about the risk of torture to adults, those concerns are even greater or more serious when we're talking about children."