Minister tells Afghanistan inquiry he is ‘unable’ to disprove alleged cover-up

The veterans minister has told the Afghanistan inquiry he was “desperate” to disprove a cover-up of alleged murders by UK special forces in the war-torn nation but was “unable” to do so.

Johnny Mercer repeatedly refused to hand over names of “multiple officers” who told him about the allegations, while giving evidence to an inquiry at the Royal Courts of Justice on Tuesday.

Mr Mercer told the independent investigation he was aware of an “odour” of a special forces unit, known to the inquiry as UKSF1, shooting civilians who did not pose a threat when it took over operations in Afghanistan in 2009.

The minister said he was party to conversations about the allegations while training to be a member of the special forces, but said he considered them at the time to be “rumours”.

He told the inquiry he “did not believe” the director of special forces and the chief of general staff when they told him there was no evidence of extra-judicial killings.

After his conversations with the pair, he said he told then-defence secretary Ben Wallace “something stinks”.

Questioned about whether he believed he “got to the bottom” of the allegations made in the £10 million Royal Military Police (RMP) investigation codenamed Operation Northmoor, Mr Mercer said: “No, it’s only ever got worse.”

The minister continued: “I have been desperate for some sort of evidence to disprove these allegations because I don’t want to believe them, I don’t want to believe them from that unit.

“I have friends who were killed in operations, I have friends who were never the same person again after Afghanistan.

“And I don’t want to believe it, but at every stage I have tried to find something to disprove these allegations but I have been unable to.”

He told counsel to the inquiry Oliver Glasgow he was not willing to hand their names over “at this stage”.

Mr Mercer said: “This has been a prolonged saga for me over many years and my faith in the system to interrogate these issues is not where it needs to be for that type of thing.”

Mr Glasgow put it to him that failing to provide the names of those who told him the information would “considerably hamper” the inquiry’s work.

Mr Mercer replied: “The one thing you can hold on to is your integrity and I will be doing that with these individuals.”

He added: “The simple reality at this stage is, I’m not prepared to burn them – not when, in my judgment, you are already speaking to people who have far greater knowledge of what was going on.

“If they were first-hand witnesses to this behaviour then that would be a different calculation, but they were not.”

Mr Glasgow then asked: “Do I understand that you are refusing to help the inquiry?”

Chairman Sir Charles Haddon-Cave then intervened and said: “Mr Mercer, I would like you to reflect on this aspect if you would be so kind.”

The minister was then questioned about a first-hand account of somebody alleging they had been asked to carry a “dropped weapon” – a weapon taken on an operation to place next to an unarmed individual.

He said the allegation was made by a member of a separate special forces unit.

Mr Glasgow went on: “Who was the person who gave you that first-hand information? Will you write the name of that individual down?”

Mr Mercer said: “No.”

After being pressed on why not, the minister said: “I’m obviously not going to do that, that was a private conversation with that individual but I will reflect on the chair’s comments and I will reflect very carefully on this.”

Mr Glasgow went on: “How do you think the inquiry can get to the truth, Mr Mercer, if you deny us access to a potentially important witness.”

Mr Mercer responded: “Because I’ve seen your list of witnesses and you have important first-hand witnesses on there and they are the individuals to whom you need to speak.”

Mr Glasgow interjected: “You have no idea who our witnesses are, Mr Mercer.”

The minister said: “I’ve seen a list of them.”

The counsel to the inquiry then said: “You’ve seen a list of names, you don’t know whether they are witnesses or not so don’t be silly, let’s be sensible together.”

Mr Haddon-Cave again urged Mr Mercer to reflect on his decision to withhold the names from the inquiry.

Mr Glasgow said seven members of special forces were due to give evidence in the current phase of the inquiry, which was looking at “concerns and complaints”.

One witness, an officer commander who was not stationed in Afghanistan, has already given evidence to the inquiry in a closed hearing and said he maintains the belief that special forces may have committed murder in Afghanistan.

Mr Glasgow said: “He believed that members of UKSF1 might have committed murder while conducting deliberate detention operations in Afghanistan during the relevant period.

“He also believed that members of UKSF1 might have deliberately falsified the post-operational reports to cover up what they had done.”

Mr Glasgow said he still held those beliefs at the time he gave evidence.

The inquiry will examine whether special forces had a policy of executing males of “fighting age” who posed no threat in Afghanistan between 2010 and 2013.

Afghan families have accused UK special forces of conducting a “campaign of murder” against civilians, while senior officers and personnel at the MoD “sought to prevent adequate investigation”.

No charges were brought under Operation Northmoor – which was set up in 2014 to examine allegations of executions by special forces, including those of children.

A further RMP investigation, codenamed Operation Cestro, saw three soldiers referred to the Service Prosecuting Authority, but none of them were prosecuted.

The inquiry continues.

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