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Independent Inquiry relating to AfghanistanAOAV: all our reports

Independent Inquiry relating to Afghanistan: day 3

Opening statement on behalf of the bereaved families

Richard Hermer KC opened proceedings by warning that this Inquiry would investigate ‘allegations of the utmost gravity’, where evidence would be presented of a campaign of murder amounting to war crimes. It was a practice, he argued, known to Senior Officers and the MOD, who allowed the war crimes to continue, contributing to further loss of life. The allegations of wrongdoing would be based, he stressed, on the military’s own documents, which would be given in evidence. There had been multiple expressions of concern by UKSF members, however the closing of ranks in the British army and the MOD hampered the inquiry and delayed it for years.

What the documents show is conduct that erodes the standards of the British Armed Forces.

There was absolute silence in the courtroom, when Richard Hermer KC read out the names of 33 individuals killed in 7 night raids. Perhaps the most shocking incident of all was that of 18 October 2012, when the following 4 were killed in a room:

Ahmed Shah, aged 12.

Mohammed Tayeb, aged 14.

Naik Mohammed, aged 16.

Fazel Mohammed, aged 18.

Implausible explanations were given for how the deaths occurred. Family members provided testimony via video, claiming their loved ones had been unarmed and wondering why their home was ‘raided by foreigners’. They spoke of their grief, loss and long-lasting mental trauma. One family member, whose brother and sister in law had been killed as they slept during Operation Cestro, was flanked by his young nephews, who had also been shot and gravely injured, next to their parents.

Operation Cestro involved, it is alleged, the planting of weapons by the remains of the individuals killed -including those of the children- to conceal that civilians had been murdered. It was observed that the same weapon was used multiple times, raising suspicion at the time. In addition, body cameras were not in use, and relevance surveillance footage was ‘lost’ or deleted. Existing repository of evidence was not disclosed to the RMP until 4 years later. There was an ‘orchestrated effort’ to prevent investigations by concealing information, while the main concern was for the morale and reputation of the UK armed forces, rather than the 54 Afghan civilians who had been killed in 11 separate -but eerily similar- incidents.

Shocking emails between Senior Officers referred to ‘the latest massacre’, ‘assassinations of innocents’ and instances of ‘the good ole’ tactics’.

As the bereaved families grieved, UK Special Forces tried to impede access to evidence, avoid, delay and frustrate the provision of the data requested by the RMP. Documents were fabricated and data had been deleted in a way that was irreversible. We need a fearless investigation into how and why the MOD ‘strove to ensure in the judicial review proceedings that the copious evidence which is now before the Inquiry would never see the light of day’.

What has emerged is an institutional culture that enabled wrongdoing to occur and to continue. Alarming documents point to a culture of lawlessness, operational misconduct, failure of leadership, moral corruption and disrespect for human rights. Additionally, secrecy led to a sense of exceptionality and impunity among the SAS, a toxic culture that is ‘anathema to the UK’s armed forces’.

The bereaved families of the victims look to this Inquiry to achieve justice for their loved ones, and to prove that, as a country, the UK will not tolerate unlawful action by its armed forces.

Lord Justice Haddon-Cave concluded this week’s sessions by remarking that the longer these allegations remain unresolved, the more corrosive they become. What is required now is pro-active cooperation with the Inquiry by all military and civilian personnel. Everyone with relevant information, he said, must come forward and contact the Inquiry, not wait to be contacted. All who are in a position to direct or influence those with relevant information must use that influence to help this Inquiry, and they must do so as soon as possible.

My own reflections were on the elephant in the room: the 2020 report by the International Criminal Court on alleged British war crimes in Iraq, regarding the abuse and murder of hundreds of Iraqi men in custody, a report that appears to have been shelved.