A UK defence minister has hinted that the government is considering a further inquiry or review of a pattern of 54 allegedly suspicious killings by SAS soldiers in Afghanistan, reported in a BBC Panorama earlier this week.
James Heappey told MPs on Thursday morning that defence secretary Ben Wallace “rules nothing out”, and that “he’ll be back in touch with the House very shortly to say how he thinks this might be further reviewed”.
The junior minister was responding to an urgent question from Labour following the investigative documentary and, while details were sketchy, it was clear that a public or judge-led inquiry was not being ruled out.
Panorama, using evidence obtained from previously confidential internal MoD files, had concluded that were a string of questions raised by the killings of Afghan civilians by one SAS unit operating in Helmand in 2010 and 2011.
The investigation concluded there was a pattern of “strikingly similar reports” of SAS operations known as kill/capture missions, in which an Afghan man or men were shot dead by the elite soldiers on night raids.
Male detainees were frequently taken away from captured family groups and killed after they were said to have unexpectedly produced a grenade or gun, prompting the programme to ask whether the activities of the SAS squads amounted to a “British war crime”.
John Healey, the shadow defence secretary, told MPs that the allegations reported “could not be more serious” highlighting claims that senior officers did not act to halt the killings once they had become aware of them or provide full details of what had happened to military police.
The Labour spokesperson then called for ministers to launch a judge-led inquiry “to investigate these claims of any cover-ups in the chain of command, to secure justice to any of those affected and above all, to protect the reputation of our British Special Forces?”
In Australia, as Healey referenced, ministers appointed a judge to investigate allegations of summary killings by the country’s special forces in a neighbouring Afghan province in the early part of the last decade.
The official inquiry concluded in 2020 that the Australian SAS was involved in the alleged murder of 39 Afghan civilians, then inventing cover stories and planting weapons on bodies to cover up what had happened.
On Wednesday, Andrew Hastie, Australia’s shadow defence spokesperson, told a thinktank audience in London that the inquiry, led by Maj Gen Paul Brereton, was tough but necessary to maintain the country’s international standing.
“If we cannot hold ourselves to account for unlawful battlefield conduct in Afghanistan, by what standard do we condemn Russian acts of barbarity in Ukraine?” the Liberal MP told the Henry Jackson Society.
Earlier this week, the military police said they had got in touch with the BBC to ask the programme’s producers to hand over information they have gathered in making the documentary so they can assess whether it amounts to evidence of war crimes.
However, Heappey complained to MPs that the BBC had not immediately been cooperative. “I understand that the BBC have responded to question the legal basis on which the RMP [Royal Military Police] are requesting that new evidence, which makes little sense to me,” he told the Commons.
In 2014, military police launched Operation Northmoor, an investigation into allegations of more than 600 alleged offences by British forces in Afghanistan, including the killing of civilians by the SAS. It was wound down in 2017 and closed in 2019, and the MoD said no evidence of criminality was found.
Heappey told MPs: “It is my understanding that all the allegedly criminal events referred to in the Panorama programme have been fully investigated by the service police.” But he added that the MoD remained “fully committed to any further reviews or investigations when any new evidence or reason to do so is presented”.
July 14, 2022 at 05:40PM Dan Sabbagh Defence and security editor