Photo: Defence Imagery, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED

Court Hears British Special Forces Killed Civilians In Afghanistan

An independent inquiry into unlawful killings of 80 civilians in Afghanistan by the British elite Special Air Service (SAS) between 2010 and 2013 began its first hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice in London on Monday. The court looked into allegations that British special forces killed nine people while asleep during a night raid in southern Helmand province as well as SAS operatives “executing fighting age men” even when they posed no threat.

The public inquiry, chaired by Lord Justice Haddon-Cave, was commissioned by the British government in December last year and is expected to last up to 18 months to produce an interim report. It was launched following legal cases submitted by Leigh Day solicitors on behalf of the victims’ families of Saifullah and Noorzai as well as several media investigations including a BBC investigation that revealed that one SAS unit allegedly killed 54 unarmed people in Afghanistan in suspicious circumstances. According to the media investigation, British forces deliberately planted weapons to justify killings and many SAS squadrons were “competing with each other to get the most kills.”

According to a BBC report, British troops killed nine civilians, among them a 14-year-old boy, on 7 February 2011 in Nad Ali district while they were sleeping in one room. While families of victims said they were unarmed, the SAS soldiers claimed they acted in self-defense after being fired upon. The owner of the home Habibullah Alizai, who was the first to discover the bodies, including two of his sons, said the SAS soldiers interrogated and beat him after taking him from his home.

The soldiers were also accused of placing three AK-47 assault rifles in the victims’ compound to show them as belligerent militants. Glasgow, the counsel for the plaintiffs, told the court: “All the deceased were innocent civilians, that no one in the compound was armed, and that there were no weapons present.” He also said that some local partners “refused to serve with UK special forces due to their behavior.”

During the hearing, Glasgow addressed seven separate fatal operations in Helmand involving the death of 33 people, including several children. Among them is the Saifullah family. One member of the household, whose father, two brothers, and cousin were killed by the same SAS unit during a night raid on 16 February 2011, said that following the raids, members of the family have been suffering from “nightmares and dreams filled with difficulties.”

“My family and I request the inquiry team to provide us with the truth and explain to us why and on what basis we had to go through this cruelty,” the family said. The inquiry is now set to hear submissions on behalf of the families of 33 people.

“No matter how senior their position, they are referred to the relevant authorities,” Glasgow said. The spokesman for the UK’s Ministry of Defence said that the MoD is “fully committed to supporting the inquiry as it continues its work,” according to the Independent newspaper.

However, many hearings will be held behind closed doors—without the public or press present. The inquiry and the UK’s Ministry of Defense will also withhold the identities of SAS soldiers and the names of their commanding officers. Instead, the individuals involved would be described as members of the UK special forces.

Allegations of war crimes committed by U.S.-led NATO forces during their 20-year-long mission in Afghanistan—particularly air strikes and night raids—are not new.

In June this year, the federal court found that Ben Roberts-Smith, Australia’s decorated soldier, had murdered unarmed civilians while serving in Afghanistan and bullied his peers for testifying against him. He has not yet faced criminal prosecution. Three months earlier, former Australian SAS soldier Oliver Jordan Schulz was the first ever to be arrested and charged with war crime murder of an unarmed civilian during his service in Afghanistan. He was released a week later on bail and his proceeding will return to court next month.

Australia’s Office of the Special Investigator (OSI) is investigating allegations of war crimes made against Australian soldiers. Earlier this year, the director general of the OSI said that the office is investigating between 40 and 50 allegations of criminal behavior committed by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan.

Thousands of civilians—including women, children, and the elderly—were killed or injured in Afghanistan during the past two decades, which have either gone unreported, uninvestigated, or unpunished. Even an investigation into war crimes in Afghanistan by the International Criminal Court (ICC) was put on hold primarily due to political pressure.