OTTAWA (Reuters) - A Canadian panel on Wednesday cleared eight military police of complicity in the abuse of Afghan prisoners by Afghan authorities, but also blasted Ottawa for trying to impede the investigation.
Canada's Conservative government has been dogged for years by allegations that military and political officials ignored evidence that Afghan authorities were torturing detainees transferred by Canadian troops stationed there.
The Military Police Complaints Commission said the eight could not have known that prisoners they handed over might be tortured and that their actions "met the standards of a reasonable police officer."
Handing over prisoners in the knowledge they could be mistreated is a war crime.
The panel issued its ruling after human rights groups complained the police must have known prisoners transferred in 2007 and 2008 ran the risk of being abused.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper had Parliament suspended at the end of 2009 as a way of killing off a probe by legislators into what had happened in Afghanistan.
Canada's military mission to Afghanistan ended in 2011 and some 1,000 soldiers currently in the country on a training mission will return home in March 2014.
The defense department was not immediately available for comment.
Allegations of prisoner abuse are very sensitive in Canada. In 1993, members of the Airborne Regiment, based in Somalia as part of a peace-keeping mission, tortured and beat to death a 16-year-old boy.
The regiment was disbanded and several members were subsequently convicted of crimes.
The commission also complained the government had treated it as an adversary and said when the panel chose to hold public hearings "the doors were basically slammed shut on document disclosure."
It said Ottawa "took the unreasonable position it did not need to produce documents to the Commission if it unilaterally considered them to be outside the Commission's mandate."
Opposition legislators have long complained about what they see as the Conservatives' passion for secrecy.
"All they've done is fog the windows of transparency and accountability and hope that no one's going to notice," said Paul Dewar of the main opposition New Democrats.
The commission also complained there had been little communication between police leaving Afghanistan after a six-month shift and their replacements.
"To borrow an analogy, it would be unacceptable for the police officers of a local detachment or city police force to change entirely every six months without taking serious measures to transfer the existing knowledge base to the newcomers," it said.
"(We) saw repeated examples of military police coming into theater with serious information deficits on matters relevant to their policing duties arising during the previous rotation."
Editing by Vicki Allen