Operation Burnham: Inquiry unlikely to hear from Afghan villagers

3:27 pm on 1 May 2019

The Afghanistan villagers at the heart of the Operation Burnham Inquiry may never have an opportunity to personally tell their stories about an incident in their town involving the New Zealand Defence Force.

Hit & Run

The inquiry follows allegations published in the book 'Hit and Run'. Photo: RNZ

The inquiry is investigating allegations that New Zealand soldiers killed six Afghan civilians during a military operation in 2010 and the military then covered up what happened.

The allegations were the subject of a book, Hit & Run, by journalists Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson.

In a minute released yesterday, the inquiry said travelling to Afghanistan to speak to the villagers would be a logistically challenging, time consuming and expensive process.

"The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) warns New Zealanders not to travel to Afghanistan and says that anyone who does travel there needs to make their own security arrangements with an experienced and reputable security firm.

"Travel to Afghanistan by inquiry members and/or staff would obviously be at considerable risk to the personal safety of those involved.

"Indeed it is difficult to see how the inquiry could responsibly ask any of its staff to undertake such a task given MFAT's travel advisory and the inquiry's health and safety obligations."

 Co-author of Hit and Run, Jon Stephenson

'Hit and Run' co-author Jon Stevenson Photo: Photo / Pool

The inquiry said as well as those challenges there were also communication difficulties, as many areas of Afghanistan had no cellular coverage, and there would also be linguistic and cultural difficulties.

It also raised the possibility that the villagers could be re-traumatised by giving evidence.

In its minute the inquiry said the only villagers who had the right to give evidence under the relevant act were three villagers who had a "core participant" status.

It said at least two of those people were interviewed by New Zealand journalist Jon Stephenson, and it may use transcripts of his interviews instead of speaking to the villagers directly.

Financial and timing constraints did not permit the inquiry to take full evidence from the Afghanistan villagers involved in the incident, it said.

Author Nicky Hager during his submissions at the Operation Burnham Inquiry at the High Court in Wellington.

Author Nicky Hager Photo: Pool / Mark Mitchell/NZ Herald

The inquiry will begin taking evidence later this month, beginning with Stephenson and fellow author Nicky Hager. It will then hear from the Defence Force and other government agency witnesses.

It said it hoped by the time that process is completed in late August or early September the inquiry will have taken evidence from "all important witnesses".

Lawyers for the villagers have until the end of next week to make written submissions on the proposal.

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