Amir Attaran

Amir Attaran

What Happened

Amir Attaran was targeted with intrusive information requests, apparently for having publicized information about Canada’s complicity in war crimes, notably in the torture of Afghan prisoners.

In February 2007, Amir Attaran filed an Access to Information request for government documents about the Canadian military’s treatment of Afghan detainees. Attaran maintained that these government documents were evidence of torture of Afghan prisoners by Afghan interrogators.

In March 2010, Attaran said he had seen documents revealing that the Canadian military was transferring detainees from Canadian to Afghan custody, even though the Canadians knew that the Afghan prisoners would be mistreated.

Opposition parties tried to get the government to release the documents that Attaran had seen. The government refused to release uncensored versions of the documents, citing national security concerns.

Attaran told media sources that if the documents were released in their entirety, they would reveal that certain Canadian officials were indeed guilty of war crimes due to Canadian complicity in the torture of the Afghan prisoners. Attaran’s University of Ottawa colleague Errol Mendes also publicly criticized the Harper government over the affair.

Attaran alleges that in December 2005, Chief of the Defense Staff of the Canadian Forces, Rick Hillier, made a covert agreement to transfer Afghan war detainees to Afghan domestic and secret police forces. Attaran said he believed that Canadian officials knew, or should have known, that the transfers would result in the use of torture or cruel treatment through coercive interrogation techniques.

Human rights organizations have criticized such transfers due to Afghanistan’s record of torture. According to Attaran, the U.S. State Department has recorded the use of techniques such as pulling out fingernails and toenails, burning with hot oil, beatings, sexual humiliation and sodomy.

The Harper government responded by criticizing Attaran as a “Liberal” academic - a charge they have levelled at a number of outspoken critics of the government. The Prime Minister himself made Attaran a subject of his talking points.

In January 2011, Amir Attaran and Errol Mendes were contacted by University of Ottawa administrators who informed both men that anonymous persons were seeking unusually extensive information about them via freedom of information requests. The requests included information on their years of performance at the University, their expenses and teaching records.  

Attaran and Mendes, both outspoken critics of the Conservative government, believe that the government intends to use their personal information against them. The professors, along with other colleagues, have told the media they believe these requests for personal information were part of a conscious effort to chill academic criticism of the government.

The Conservative party denies that it is the source of the requests. Much of the information has not been provided, given that its personal nature is beyond the scope of freedom-of-information requests.  However, both Attaran and Mendes have said they will release all the requested information if the anonymous person will come forward.

Attaran and Mendes have been victims of hate mail and malicious criticism on Conservative websites, and on other websites by anonymous commentators.


Relavant Dates:

  • February 2007: Attaran files his first Access to Information Request and discovers what he claims is evidence of torture of detainees under Afghan custody.
  • February 2010: Attaran becomes subject of talking points of the Conservative Party, labeling him a “Liberal” whose academic work is politically motivated.
  • March 2010: Attaran asserts that Canadian officials are complicit in torture of detainees through the transfer of detainees to Afghan custody, despite knowledge of mistreatment.
  • January 2011: Anonymous requests for information on Mendes’ and Attaran’s professional and personal records are received by the University of Ottawa. Both claim that the requests are politically motivated.


Role or Position

Dr. Amir Attaran is Associate Professor in the Faculties of Law and Medicine at the University of Ottawa, and holds the Canada Research Chair in Law, Population Health and Global Development Policy at the University of Ottawa.

Implications and Consequences

  • Free Speech: The intimidation of Attaran and Mendes through public criticism and anonymous requests for personal information serves as a warning to those who criticize the government that they will be faced with retribution for having spoken up - a “chilling effect” on democratic dissent. Academic freedom is also threatened by such tactics.
  • Transparency: The refusal of the government to disclose what truly happened in Afghanistan violates the government’s responsibility to be transparent. There is no current security-related reason to withhold this information. Citizens should be able to hold elected officials to account.

Published on: 29 October 2011