UK launches inquiry into SAS killings in Afghanistan

Lord Justice Haddon-Cave on Wednesday launched an independent inquiry into alleged unlawful killings by UK special forces in Afghanistan, and described the allegations made against members of the British armed forces as “extremely serious”.

Hadden-Cave, who is chairing the inquiry, emphasized the importance of the move in “restoring the reputation of the military and the country.” 

The inquiry will examine night raids known as Deliberate Detention Operations (DDOs) carried out by UK special forces, specifically the SAS, between mid-2010 and mid-2013, as well as allegations of cover-ups.

Haddon-Cave is a judge and the serving Lord Justice of Appeal. However, in order to chair the inquiry, he will step down from his role as Senior Presiding Judge for England and Wales, a role he has held since October 2021.

Addressing a press conference on Wednesday afternoon in London, Haddon-Cave called for anyone with relevant information to come forward. 

“It is clearly important that anyone who has broken the law is referred to the relevant authorities for investigation, and equally, those who have done nothing wrong should rightly have the cloud of suspicion lifted from them,” he said.

This comes after what the judge described as “significant reporting” by the BBC’s Panorama programme last year, and investigations by Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) – which revealed that one British SAS squadron may have unlawfully killed at least 54 Afghans during one six-month tour.

In addition to these investigations, two families of people killed by British forces in DDOs in Afghanistan have brought legal action against the UK’s defense ministry.

However, Haddon-Cave said many of the inquiry’s hearings would have to be held in private because of the “highly sensitive” nature of the testimony.

In July last year, BBC Panorama reported that it had analysed hundreds of pages of SAS operational accounts, including reports covering more than a dozen “kill or capture” raids carried out by one SAS squadron in Helmand in 2010/11.

Individuals who served with the SAS squadron on that deployment told the BBC they witnessed the SAS operatives kill unarmed people during night raids. They also said they saw the operatives using so-called “drop weapons” – AK-47s planted at a scene to justify the killing of an unarmed person.

This investigation reported allegations that several people who served with special forces said that SAS squadrons were competing with each other to get the most kills.

BBC also reported that internal emails showed officers at the highest levels of special forces were aware there was concern over possible unlawful killings, but failed to report the suspicions to military police despite a legal obligation to do so.

Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), a London-based charity that researches and monitors global armed violence, also paved the way for the inquiry and on Wednesday welcomed the announcement.

Iain Overton, Executive Director of AOAV, said in a statement that the move was a good step towards accountability and justice. However, there are significant barriers to the truth coming out,” he said.

According to him, the “British military has already shown themselves to be capable of closing ranks in the face of external scrutiny, potential victims and eye witnesses are currently living under the rule of the Taliban and largely inaccessible to the inquiry, and the government’s own statute of limitations on prosecutions of overseas military operations may put a time limit on findings being translated into justice.”

Meanwhile, speaking to the BBC, Tessa Gregory, a partner at law firm Leigh Day, which has represented some of the family members of those killed on DDOs, welcomed the launch of the inquiry.

“Throughout years of secrecy and cover-ups our clients have fought tirelessly for justice for their loved ones’ deaths and they hope that a bright light will now be shone on the practices and command of UK special forces in Afghanistan,” Gregory said.

AOAV meanwhile pointed out that “the results may also shed light on the extent to which the UK’s intelligence agencies were involved in these operations and what role they may have played in any alleged cover-ups.

“This inquiry is crucial for the United Kingdom to uphold its commitment to human rights, transparency, and the rule of law, both domestically and internationally,” AOAV stated.

Australia’s ‘war crimes’

Wednesday’s announcement comes just days after Australian police arrested a former SAS soldier in the Australian army on charges of committing war crime murder after he was allegedly caught on camera shooting an Afghan man in a wheatfield in Uruzgan province in 2012.

The former Special Forces soldier Oliver Schulz, 41, was arrested in North South Wales on Monday.

“It will be alleged he murdered an Afghan man while deployed to Afghanistan with the Australian Defence Force,” the Australian Federal Police said in a joint statement with the Office of the Special Investigator (OSI).

The statement also noted that Monday’s arrest was the first war crime charge of murder to be laid against a serving or former Australian Defence Force member under Australian law.

In addition, the federal police stated that the two agencies “are working together to investigate allegations of criminal offenses under Australian law related to breaches of the Laws of Armed Conflict by Australian Defence Force personnel in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016.”

The investigation into the alleged killing has been underway for more than two years. It started after the OSI was established following the release of the Brereton Report in 2020, which found there was “credible evidence” that some of Australia’s elite soldiers unlawfully killed 39 people while deployed in Afghanistan.

The report also found the murders had been covered up by Australia Defense Force personnel and that 25 ADF personnel were involved in the killings, including those who were “accessories” to the incident.

The unlawful killings discussed by the report began in 2009, with most occurring in 2012 and 2013.

The report recommended 19 current or former members of the special forces should be investigated by police over 23 incidents involving the killings of “prisoners, farmers or civilians”.The inquiry also found that weapons had been planted on some of the victims, while junior soldiers were sometimes forced to shoot prisoners for a “first kill” as part of an initiation known as “blooding”.