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AOAV: all our reportsIndependent Inquiry relating to Afghanistan

UK Special Forces under investigation in Afghan war crimes Inquiry

UK Special Forces are at the heart of an investigation into war crimes, the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) confirmed for the first time. This marks a significant shift from the MoD’s previous efforts to keep details of Special Forces’ alleged involvement in Afghanistan war crimes confidential.

Challenges mounted against the MoD’s initial position by bereaved relatives and various media outlets, as well as work such as this report by Action on Armed Violence, led to this change. This development follows extensive investigations into alleged illicit killings by the SAS.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace publicly acknowledged the Special Forces’ involvement in the inquiry concerning Afghanistan during a pre-hearing statement for the Independent Inquiry. He emphasized this revelation only pertains to the exceptional context of this inquiry and should not be construed as a change in the government’s policy on commenting about UK Special Forces’ deployments or activities.

Previously, the MoD endeavoured to withhold from the public any evidence or documentation that may affirm or deny the alleged involvement of UK Special Forces in the operations under investigation. However, in a turn of events this week, less than 48 hours before presenting their argument before Lord Justice Haddon-Cave, the inquiry’s chair, the MoD’s legal team indicated their intention to relinquish this aspect of their application.

The decision, confirmed on 5 July 2023, permits the open discussion and public reporting of the alleged involvement of UK Special Forces in unlawful killings in Afghanistan during the inquiry’s hearings.

AOAV, in combination with the BBC, exposed evidence pointing towards a single SAS unit operating in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011, which purportedly killed 54 people under dubious circumstances during a six-month tour.

More investigations by the BBC revealed specific instances causing concerns at the UK Special Forces’ highest echelons, including a 2012 raid where a different unit allegedly killed two parents and seriously injured their two young boys. A submission to the lawyers representing the bereaved families claimed that one of the elite soldiers personally killed 35 Afghans during a six-month tour as part of an alleged policy to eliminate all fighting-age males in raided homes, regardless of the perceived threat they posed. A judgment on the matter is expected later this month, and the hearing is ongoing.

The MoD is concurrently advocating for automatic anonymity for all Special Forces personnel involved in Afghan operations and for all witness testimonies about the operations to be conducted privately. Lawyers representing Afghan victims’ families and AOAV are opposing these restrictions, deeming them as detrimental to the inquiry’s credibility.

For instance, Richard Hermer KC argued that Ben Wallace’s acknowledgment was only a partial concession and urged the inquiry to explicitly name the SAS, the elite force at the centre of the alleged killings. Hermer criticised the approach of the inquiry, stating that it would “infantilise” the process. The lawyer also challenged the Ministry of Defence’s request to withhold the identities of all British special forces members, suggesting that such requests should be assessed on an individual basis. The legal team representing the Afghan families highlighted instances on LinkedIn and YouTube where individuals identified themselves as SAS members, as well as government biographies listing generals serving in the elite force.

As the hearing commenced at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, Lord Justice Haddon-Cave concurred that the public should be privy to as much information as possible under the 2005 Inquiries Act to dispel public concerns regarding the inquiry’s subject matter. However, he recognised that certain pieces of evidence might have to be kept confidential due to national security reasons.

Dr Iain Overton of Action on Armed Violence said of the news: “In the face of such serious allegations, it is vital that transparency and justice prevail. This confirmation by the Ministry of Defence is a pivotal step forward. It’s now incumbent on all involved in the inquiry to ensure a thorough and fair investigation, one that both respects national security and upholds the values of human rights we as a nation stand for.”

The Royal Military Police’s lawyer, Paul Greaney KC, also noted during the inquiry that they are currently investigating allegations of unlawful killings in Afghanistan and have received confidential evidence from informants.