A practice of unlawful killings which are possibly war crimes. Faked evidence and cover ups, followed by a decision not to proceed for lack of evidence. That was the story confidently and relentlessly told by BBC Panorama about the conduct of British special forces in Afghanistan over a decade ago, in a special programme produced above the BBC Northern Ireland label. The claims were made by former soldiers on camera with identities withheld or off camera, and by follow up evidence conducted on the ground this year.
Similar findings against Australian special forces were backed up by pictures from a soldier’s headcam of an illegal execution as the patrol moved on, leaving the body partly hidden in a ditch.
54 people were killed by one SAS unit in one six month tour in 2010. They were not the only ones. This went on for three years.
Units competed with each other in carrying out the number of killings on the flimsiest evidence.
“ Cut and paste accounts” were repeated, of captured and bound individual Afghans taken into rooms and shot dead claiming they were about to seize a concealed weapon when they were killed . These accounts were accepted at command level.
The MoD still insist that no prosecutions followed for lack of evidence. But they admit the existence of files of “anecdotal evidence of extra judicial killings” reserved under national security.
Tory claims of vexatious prosecutions in both theatres are exposed as the opposite of the truth in cases such as these.
Similar files exist on the security forces’ role in Northern Ireland. Pressure to release both kinds will mount either for legal process or more open disclosure.
General Lord Richards the former head of the British armed forces said he would “order a thorough investigation” into allegations that SAS troops killed detainees in Afghanistan if he were still in charge.
I am certain that Admiral Radakin, the current chief of the defence staff, will do this”.
Lord Richards was the chief of the defence staff between 2010 and 2013, when the alleged extrajudicial killings took place.
The BBC understands that General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith was briefed about the alleged executions when he became head of special forces the following year. But the general failed to pass on evidence to the military police, even when they investigated a member of the same SAS unit for murder.
The UK Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, faced mounting calls to act on Tuesday after Shadow Defence Secretary John Healey called on him to “urgently explain to Parliament what action he’ll take to verify any truth to these claims and any possible cover-up“.
The implications for the Northern Ireland Legacy Bill are obvious. The files should be made available either as potential prosecution evidence or more open disclosure. And if Panorama can persuade former witness solders to talk about Afghanistan, why cannot a public tribunal do the same – and not only security forces – for events in Northern Ireland?
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London