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Why did the UK MOD refuse to release ministerial letter on SAS killings in Afghanistan to AOAV, citing public interest grounds?

Veterans Minister Johnny Mercer expressed significant reservations in 2019 in a letter he wrote concerning the decision to conclude an investigation into the actions of UK special forces in Afghanistan.

The letter was sent by Mr Mercer to then Defence Minister Ben Wallace expressing private concerns regarding credible allegations of war crimes perpetrated by British forces, reports the BBC. Even though Mercer later publicly supported the decision to close the probe, he had previously told Conservative Home in 2020 that he had written the letter, though the contents are only coming to light now.

The BBC’s reporting of this letter’s contents, however, raises major concerns about why the Ministry of Defence (MOD) refused to release this letter to Action on Armed Violence back in 2020.

After the Conservative Home interview, AOAV’s director, Iain Overton, submitted a Freedom of Information to the MOD asking for the correspondence. The MOD took 11 months to reply and rejected the disclosure of the letter, stating that “while disclosure would show the collaborative work between Ministers in making decisions in government, it would also undermine effective ministerial decisions relating to key policy making.”

The BBC, however, managed to see the letter that was refused to AOAV.

They reported that Mercer, having had operational experience in Afghanistan alongside the UK special forces, was apprehensive about potential legal breaches by SAS units and told Ben Wallace as such.

These purported violations encompassed the unlawful killing of unarmed individuals and subsequent placement of weapons beside the deceased to legitimise the lethal force used.

While Mercer raised alarms, there is no indication that he personally witnessed or had direct knowledge of the alleged war crimes. Nonetheless, he cautioned colleagues about potential long-term reputational damage to the government if it neglected serious examination and necessary prosecution related to the alleged British war crimes.

Despite his reservations, as a government minister, Mercer eventually endorsed the public decision to terminate Operation Northmoor and a parallel inquiry into operations in Iraq (known as IHAT). His public statements criticised those he accused of attempting to “rewrite history”, while also acknowledging regret over the missed opportunities for accountability due to flawed initial investigations by the Royal Military Police.

Operation Northmoor was instituted in 2014 with a mandate to examine a total of 675 allegations levelled against the UK armed forces for their conduct in Afghanistan. These claims included grave accusations against the revered SAS regiment, suggesting that dozens of unarmed men, detainees, and civilians had fallen victim to their operations.

However, despite the gravity and number of allegations, Operation Northmoor, under the stewardship of the Royal Military Police, was discontinued in 2019 without any resultant charges. This abrupt termination elicited concerns and dissent among various governmental and civil service factions, leading to palpable consternation.

In the intervening years since its closure, Operation Northmoor has been the subject of criticism for its perceived shortcomings, including failure to interview crucial witnesses or secure vital evidence pertaining to the allegations of extra-judicial killings.

Royal Military Police officers, tasked with the responsibility of the investigation, have claimed obstructions in their inquiry process by senior military personnel. According to these officers, the operation was concluded prematurely, hindering a comprehensive investigation.

Iain Overton, AOAV’s Executive Director, said of Mr Mercer’s letter: “If the MOD was really motivated to uncover human rights abusers in its ranks, it would not have used every excuse possible to avoid scrutiny. From shutting down an investigation, to refusing Freedom of Information requests, to seeking to have the current inquiry into SAS killings behind closed doors – all of this points to an institution that would rather the sins of the past are buried than addressed and never repeated.”

The Ministry of Defence has declined to comment, citing the ongoing nature of the public inquiry.