The dead man was little-known, the alleged killers were thousands of kilometres from home and the entire incident seemed likely to be forgotten quickly amid the litany of tragedies that have befallen Somalia. But more than four months after the killing of a Somali prisoner in Canadian custody—an event that led to charges against four Canadian peacekeepers, two of whom stand accused of second-degree murder—the case continues to stir controversy. Among the issues is the reluctance of both the military and Prime Minister Kim Campbell, at the time the minister of defence, to make public key aspects of the case involving Canadian soldiers attached to a UN peacekeeping force in the east African country (page 20). As well, confusion surrounds an apparent suicide attempt by one of the soldiers. Campbell’s recent statements on the case have done nothing to clarify what she knew
about the incident, and when she knew it.
Indeed, one of the few consistent themes since the death has been the unwillingness of military officials, Campbell and her aides to discuss the case. According to a military “significant incident report,” Canadian soldiers arrested Somali Shidane Abukar Arone, 29, on March 16, after he crept inside the Canadian compound at Belet Huen, presumably to steal supplies. He died after a scuffle. Arone’s death was announced in a news release that was posted in the Somali capital of Mogadishu, 330 km from Belet Huen, but not made available in Canada. The information only became widely known on April 1 after a reporter from Pembroke, Ont., 150 km northwest of Ottawa, wrote about the death for the Pembroke Observer. Jim Day had heard rumors of the event while in Belet Huen to observe the activities of soldiers from CFB Petawawa, near Pembroke. But because he was not told
of the news release in Mogadishu, Day received confirmation of the killing only after questioning officials of the department of national defence (DND) in Ottawa.
That two-week delay, Campbell acknowledged last week, was a mistake. “The assumption in Ottawa was that the information would be made public and it was made public,” she said in Calgary. “But it was perhaps not drawn to the attention of the media.” She added that, in future, the military will contact journalists if major incidents go unreported for more than 24 hours.
Campbell’s then-chief of staff, Ray Castelli, has acknowledged that he was informed of the death only hours after it occurred. Campbell herself says that she was briefed about it on March 17, and was told on March 19 that military police were going to Somalia to investigate. Still, neither she nor anyone in her department spoke publicly about the incident until after the appearance of Day’s
story. On April 28, Campbell told the Commons that she had been informed of the “criminal nature” of the incident only on March 31, when the military police team returned from Somalia. Last week, the Prime Minister’s Office declined further comment.
Opposition politicians have speculated that Campbell, then in the midst of the Conservative leadership campaign that made her Prime Minister on June 25, deliberately tried to suppress information about the death for fear that it might result in damaging publicity. “She keeps saying it was other people’s mistakes,” said Liberal MP Lloyd Axworthy. “She isn’t taking the responsibility.”
The case continues to cause problems for the military. DND officials have released few details about the death, saying they do not want to disrupt the judicial process. Last week, however, a CBC Radio report raised questions about the apparent suicide attempt of Master Cpl. Clayton Matchee, who was charged with second-degree murder after the killing. Military officials have suggested that Matchee tried to hang himself with a bootlace while in custody. But an anonymous source sent the CBC and several other news organizations faxes alleging, among other things, that the department has photographs showing that Matchee was wearing two laced boots when he was found alive, hanging in his cell. If true, that could support claims by Matchee’s family that he was the victim of an attempted murder, rather than an attempted suicide. DND officials have declined to confirm the existence of such photographs. But a military official who spoke to Maclean’s on condition of anonymity offered another explanation, saying that Matchee may have had in his possession a supply kit which included an extra set of laces.
Another point of controversy concerns a visit to Matchee in hospital last week by his commanding officer, Lt.-Col. Carol Mathieu. Mathieu asked Matchee—whose lawyer says that he has suffered memory loss from the hanging—for a statement on the murder charge. Matchee’s family has protested that he was physically and mentally unprepared for such a meeting. But the military’s senior legal officer, Brig.-Gen. Pierre Boutet, told Maclean’s that Matchee’s doctors approved
Mathieu’s visit. Under military law, nothing that Matchee might have said can be used against him.
Despite the pressure for greater disclosure, DND has shown little desire to be more forthcoming. An armed forces board of inquiry is now conducting a private review of Canada’s role in Somalia and will report its initial findings by July 30 to the chief of the defence staff, Admiral John Anderson. The inquiry will then be put on hold until after the trials of the four soldiers.
Meanwhile, Maclean’s has learned that all promotions for personnel who served in Somalia have been frozen pending the outcome of the inquiry. That includes a planned promotion for the commander of Canada’s forces there, Col. Serge Labbé. Last Feb. 5, DND announced that Labbé would be promoted to brigadier-general and named commandant of the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont. Instead, Labbé, while retaining his rank as colonel, has been named director general of military planning and operations at DND headquarters.
Ironically, his new duties will include overseeing an evaluation of the Somali mission. Labbé himself became the focus of controversy after a March 4 incident in which two Canadian soldiers shot two unarmed Somalis. One Somali was killed and the other wounded. Subsequent DND reports said that the two were shot while attempting to enter the compound at 4:20 a.m. local time by two soldiers whose weapons were equipped with nightscopes. Labbé said later that their conduct was “consistent with the actions of well-trained soldiers.” The shootings, however, are still under investigation.
A more complete account of the March 16 shooting will become public only when the four soldiers charged with the death go on trial in an open military court. According to Boutet, those trials will be held once the paperwork is complete, likely this fall. If so, there is a good chance that the trials will coincide with a federal election campaign. Only then will Canadians learn more about how and why Shidane Abukar Arone died.
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