The Defence Minister has denied any alleged war crime murders in the Afghanistan special forces report are “fog of war” incidents, hitting back at critics of the Brereton inquiry process.
Senator Linda Reynolds, who said she was left “physically ill” after reading the report’s claims that Australian troops had killed 39 Afghan civilians and prisoners, described the incidents included in the report as “alleged cold-blooded murder” outside the heat of battle.
“There are 39 incidents of credible evidence of murder. Not fog of war, murder,” she said.
“That cannot be swept under the carpet … you cannot look away, I cannot unsee what I read.”
Senator Reynolds’ full-throated defence of the Brereton inquiry on Wednesday was a direct response to criticisms from former special forces captain Heston Russell. Just 24 hours earlier, he blasted the report’s key claim that the alleged murders were not in ‘fog of war’ situations.
“What is the ‘heat of battle’?” Mr Russell, an Afghanistan veteran, said in Canberra on Tuesday. He claimed special forces troops had the legal authority to “prosecute, capture and kill” enemies “in any circumstances”.
“I don’t know what ‘the fog of war’ is … what we need to do now is not sit here and debate ‘fog of war’, we need to allow those accused to be afforded the presumption of innocence.”
Special Forces veteran Heston Russell standing up for almost 3,000 soldiers who stand to lose their medals following Afghanistan war report. @10NewsFirst @Studio10au @JacquiLambie @RealBobKatter pic.twitter.com/pMrlYJH5jf
— Tegan George (@tegangeorge) December 7, 2020
The Brereton report found “credible evidence” of incidents including handcuffed prisoners being shot in the head at point-blank range, while vision of one highly publicised incident showed an Australian soldier shooting an unarmed man in a wheat field after asking his patrol commander “you want me to drop this c–t?”.
Senator Reynolds, who has seen a less redacted version of the report than has been made public, was unequivocal in her defence of the inquiry.
“These are not fog of war allegations. These are allegations made largely by our own defence personnel, about conduct they saw, witnessed and in some cases participated in,” she said in Parliament House on Wednesday.
The New Daily asked her what she understood that term, a critical point of contention in the debate over the war crimes report, to mean.
” ‘Fog of war’ to me means, when we put people in harm’s way in combat situations, there will be situations where people have a split second to make a decision about what they do next,” Senator Reynolds said.
“Justice Brereton has been incredibly clear that all the matters in his report are not those fog of war, split decisions about what I do next. These are all, all, incidents of alleged cold-blooded murder.”
She said soldiers named in the report would be given legal assistance and an opportunity to have any charges examined in court.
Mr Russell had claimed some incidents reported in media were a “snapshot”, saying there might be wider contexts to specific allegations of murder.
“That has to go through to the office of the special prosecutor. I wasn’t there,” he said.
Asked about one of the most controversial recommendations of the report, that the Meritorious Unit Citation be stripped from all special forces troops who served in Afghanistan from 2007-13 – some 3000 soldiers in total – Senator Reynolds said a decision was likely early in 2021.
“No final decision has been made,” she said.
“When [the Chief of Defence] has got his implementation plan approved through Defence’s senior leadership, he will come to me with the implementation plan and I will consult with the Prime Minister,” she said.
Senator Reynolds sidestepped a question about progress in appointing a special investigator to further examine the inquiry’s claims. There were reports on Wednesday the Morrison government is struggling to find a qualified person to fill the role.
Senator Reynolds said the office was being set up and the process would be further rolled out in early 2021.
“Issues will keep arising out of this report, and they should. These are some of the most serious issues that go to the heart of the moral authority in our defence force,” she said.
“A very distinguished and experienced panel will be working with and reporting directly to me. They have access to everything and they will be reporting regularly to me.”
On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch called on Prime Minister Scott Morrison to ensure the special investigator’s office was free from political interference and budget constraints.
“It should seek accountability both for those who directly committed these heinous acts, but also those liable as a matter of command responsibility,” HRW’s Australia director Elaine Pearson said.