Allegations of unlawful executions by British special forces in Afghanistan are “extremely serious”, the independent inquiry’s chairman has said.
The probe officially launched on Wednesday, as Lord Justice Haddon-Cave said many hearings would have to be held in private due to “reasons to do with national security” that are “highly sensitive”.
The inquiry is set to focus on alleged illegal activity by British armed forces in the war-torn nation between 2010 and 2013, as well as allegations that the Royal Military Police’s (RMP) investigation of reported unlawful killings by special forces was inadequate.
Lord Justice Haddon-Cave said anyone found to have broken the law should be “referred to the relevant authorities for investigation” – describing it as “critical – both for the reputation of the armed forces and the country.”
Two RMP investigations, codenamed Operation Northmoor and Operation Cestro, are set to be scrutinised by the probe.
No charges were brought under Operation Northmoor – a £10 million investigation which was set up in 2014 to examine allegations of executions by special forces, including those of children.
The inquiry is set to look at allegations that “numerous” killings were carried out, the alleged cover-up of illegal activity and inadequate investigations by the Royal Military Police.
“I am confident that I and my inquiry team will get to the bottom of this,” the inquiry chairman said.
Lord Justice Haddon-Cave said the three-year period in question, between 2010 and 2013, “sufficiently captures the allegations currently being made”.
Asked why the term “special forces” was not mentioned in his opening statement, he told reporters that “armed forces” was the phrase that was to be used in the terms of reference but would not elaborate further.
The chairman said the inquiry was launched in the wake of legal challenges to the Government by Leigh Day solicitors on behalf of the Saifullah and Noorzai families, as well as a number of significant media investigations.
The independent statutory inquiry was commissioned by Defence Secretary Ben Wallace under the 2005 Inquiries Act.
A BBC Panorama investigation focused on Operation Northmoor, which looked into suspicious killings on night raids, including one which involved three children reportedly killed by a British soldier in 2012.
The conduct of the armed forces during the night raids, known as deliberate detention operations (DDOs), is set to form the basis of the independent inquiry.
Lord Justice Haddon-Cave said the probe was equally important to “have the cloud of suspicion lifted” from those who have done nothing wrong, but told reporters some alleged unlawful killings could have involved children.
He said he would not be able to “give any particular figure” on the number of instances of alleged unlawful activity being investigated.
Officially launching the inquiry, Lord Justice Haddon-Cave said: “It is clearly important that anyone who has broken the law is referred to the relevant authorities for investigation.
“Equally, those who have done nothing wrong should rightly have the cloud of suspicion lifted from them.
“This is critical, both for the reputation of the armed forces and the country.”
When the probe was launched, a member of the Noorzai family said: “We live in hope that those responsible will one day be held to account.”
A member of the Saifullah family added: “I am extremely happy that there are people who value the loss of life of my family, of Afghans, enough to investigate.”
Speaking after the inquiry was officially launched, Tessa Gregory, partner at Leigh Day, said: “Our clients welcome the official launch of the Independent Inquiry relating to Afghanistan and look forward to working with Lord Justice Haddon-Cave and his inquiry team as they seek to establish the truth which has been hidden for too long.
“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.”
The chairman urged anyone with information or material relevant to the inquiry to come forward through the inquiry’s website – www.iia.independent-inquiry.uk/
A further case management hearing is due to be held on April 25 in London – where a more detailed timetable will be set.