Afghanistan: Ministry of Defence announces probe into claims of unlawful killings by UK soldiers

The independent inquiry into allegations of wrongdoing by British troops in Afghanistan will start early next year

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An inquiry into allegations of unlawful killings by British soldiers in Afghanistan has been launched, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has announced.

Bereaved families welcomed the “unprecedented” probe into alleged unlawful activity by UK armed forces during deliberate detention operations in the war-torn nation between 2010 and 2013.

The independent statutory inquiry, commissioned by Defence Secretary Ben Wallace under the 2005 Inquiries Act, is to start in early 2023, defence minister Dr Andrew Murrison announced in the Commons on Thursday.

It is to be chaired by Lord Justice Haddon-Cave, who is stepping down from his role as senior presiding judge for England and Wales to focus on the task. The Ministry of Defence announced the inquiry which will look into deliberate detention operations. The inquiry will also look at the adequacy of MoD’s response to those concerns and assess what lessons can be learned.

In 2014, military police launched Operation Northmoor, an investigation into allegations against British forces in Afghanistan, including the alleged killing of civilians by the SAS. It closed in 2019, and the MoD said no evidence of criminality was found.

What’s been said about the inquiry?

Dr Murrison said the Afghanistan inquiry will involve the entire chain of command, also focus on the “adequacy of subsequent investigations” by the MoD into allegations of wrongdoing including murder. He said: “This decision has been informed by two ongoing judicial review cases known as Saifullah and Noorzai.

“The claims in those cases assert that relevant allegations of unlawful activity were not properly investigated.” The underlying events have been the subject of comprehensive service police criminal investigations. But the MOD accepts that Operation Northmoor should have been started earlier and that there may be further lessons to learn from the incidents despite there being insufficient evidence for any prosecutions.”

In the Commons, Dr Murrison acknowledged it was a Conservative manifesto commitment to tackle the “vexatious legal claims that have targeted our armed forces over recent years.”

An inquiry will look into claims of wrongdoing by UK troops in Afghanistan.An inquiry will look into claims of wrongdoing by UK troops in Afghanistan.
An inquiry will look into claims of wrongdoing by UK troops in Afghanistan.

He added: “We will of course ensure that all service personnel, veterans and current and former civil servants that are asked to engage with the inquiry are given full legal and pastoral support.”

Dr Murrison concluded: “We are profoundly grateful for their (the armed forces’) service today as we were whilst they were deployed at our behest in Afghanistan.”

Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace said: “Defence has made a number of changes in recent years when dealing with serious allegations of wrongdoing against our Armed Forces. Many of these are already in operation, including the creation of the Defence Serious Crime Unit.

“While there have been several comprehensive investigations into the events in question, if there are further lessons to learn it is right that we consider those fully to ensure all allegations are handled appropriately and in equal measure to ensure our personnel are adequately protected from unnecessary reinvestigations.”

It follows after a BBC Panorama investigation made claims of 54 suspicious killings carried out by one British SAS unit on a six-month tour of Afghanistan in 2010-11.

Referencing this in the Commons in response to comments made by shadow defence secretary John Healey, Dr Murrison said: “allegations made to a television production company is not the same as allegations made in court or indeed allegations made to a statutory inquiry.

“Service police as I understand it in the light of the Panormama report have contacted the BBC to ask for evidence I’m not aware of any new evidence having been provided beyond that which is already being investigated.

What are the judicial review cases about?

The families of eight people, including three young boys, who it is alleged were murdered by UK Special Forces in two separate incidents during night raids in Afghanistan in 2011 and 2012, started judicial review proceedings.

In the proceedings by the Saifullah and Noorzai families in 2019 and 2020 respectively, the families alleged that the deaths of their relatives formed part of a wider pattern of extrajudicial killings by UK Special Forces in Afghanistan which were subsequently covered up by both senior SAS and SBS officers and officials in Whitehall.

What have the families of those who died said?

A member of the Noorzai family said: “My family has waited 10 years to find out why this happened. We are happy that finally after so many years someone is going to investigate this thoroughly. We live in hope that those responsible will one day be held to account.”

A member of the Saifullah family said: “I am extremely happy that there are people who value the loss of life of my family, of Afghans, enough to investigate.

“I am very grateful to my lawyers for pursuing this, and I am grateful to those who have decided there must be an investigation, and most of all to those who are doing the investigation. I hope they will fearlessly pursue the truth”

Tessa Gregory, partner at law firm Leigh Day which is representing the families, said: “The allegations of extrajudicial killings and cover up are of such gravity, and the concerns expressed contemporaneously within the British and Afghan army and by a reputable international organisation working on the ground in Afghanistan were so serious and so widespread, that an inquiry should have been instituted by the government years ago.”