28 Mar 2017

Afghan villagers' lawyers formally call for inquiry

6:47 pm on 28 March 2017

Lawyers acting for villagers claiming they were caught up in a 2010 raid involving New Zealand SAS troops have formally asked Prime Minister Bill English to hold an independent investigation.

Investigative journalists Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson have released a book, 'Hit & Run', about the New Zealand SAS in Afghanistan.

Investigative journalists Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson released a new book about New Zealand's operations in Afghanistan on Wednesday. Photo: RNZ / Hans Weston

New book Hit & Run, by Jon Stephenson and Nicky Hager, claims six civilians died and 15 were wounded in raids involving American helicopter gunships, Afghan forces and New Zealand soldiers.

The Defence Force said there could have been civilian deaths as a result of Operation Burnham but insisted New Zealand soldiers followed the rules of engagement at all times.

It has also said New Zealand troops never operated in the two villages, Naik and Khak Khuday Dad, which were named in the book.

Rodney Harrison QC, left, Deborah Manning, and Richard McLeod announce they are to act for Afghan families affected by the 2010 SAS raid.

Rodney Harrison QC, left, Deborah Manning and Richard McLeod announce they will be acting for Afghan families. Photo: RNZ / Brad White

Richard McLeod from McLeod and Associates has written to Mr English and other senior ministers, requesting a formal inquiry.

In the letter he said they would go back to their clients in Khak Khuday Dad and Naik overnight to confirm instructions.

"We advise that we have just received information that is directly relevant to our request for an inquiry and which relates to the various claims publicised by the New Zealand Defence Force in a media release of 26 March 2017 and press conference of the Chief of Defence Force Lieutenant-General Tim Keating on 27 March 2017.

"We are currently in the process of confirming instructions with our clients before that information is provided to you.

"These instructions and this information are of great significance to the decision that you are presently facing," the letter said.

Mr McLeod said they would expect to have that information to Mr English by tomorrow morning.

"In the meantime, we request that no decision be made regarding an inquiry without our clients being first afforded the opportunity to provide potentially significant information to the government of New Zealand which would be directly relevant to the need for an inquiry."

The letter said the news conference held by General Keating yesterday by no means cleared up the questions that remained about the 2010 operation.

It said the "inevitable conclusion" was that:

"[The Defence Force (NZDF)] was involved in a military operation on 22 August 2010 in Baghlan province; that there were fatalities (allegedly nine "insurgents"), and that there were associated allegations of civilian casualties (which the NZDF denied).

"Furthermore, taking into account the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) media release and the NZDF media releases, it has also effectively been confirmed by NZDF that property damage occurred during a military operation in which it was involved, namely damage to two village buildings."

Investigative journalists Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson have released a book, 'Hit & Run', about the New Zealand SAS in Afghanistan.

Nicky Hager, left, and Jon Stephenson speak to media at the book launch last week. Photo: RNZ / Jane Patterson

From the information they had, Mr McLeod said, the lawyers did not accept the raid took place in Tirgiran as claimed by the Defence Force, rather than the two villages named in the book Hit & Run.

"Our emphatic instructions from our clients are that there was no other military operation in the area of Tirgiran on or about 22 August 2010, and that the only military operation or raid that occurred on this date took place in the villages of Naik and Khak Khuday Dad.

"Furthermore, to be clear, the only villages to suffer deaths, injuries and/or destruction of property on the night of 22 August 2010 in the Tirgiran area were Naik and Khak Khuday Dad.

"Our clients reject outright the latest claims by the NZDF that there was a separate military operation (resulting in deaths and destruction of buildings) on the same night, occurring some kilometres south of Khak Khuday Dad village."

The letter also referred to a 2010 New York Times article published a few days after the operation, which detailed investigations into claims of Afghan deaths caused by a raid on the village of Naik carried out by "special forces".

PM still taking advice on any inquiry

Bill English speaks at a press conference after meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.

Prime Minister Bill English Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Pasons-King

Mr English has effectively ruled out an inquiry into the alleged potential war crimes detailed in Hit & Run, but he said he was still taking advice about other matters.

The events laid out in yesterday's Defence Force news conference differed from the facts detailed in the book, he said.

"We are certainly taking that into consideration, I think it makes it pretty clear that there won't be an inquiry into war crimes, but as that only happened in the last day or two we'll be taking some further advice from defence and from officials."

He said whether or not he would view the camera footage of part of the operation referred to by General Keating was a "discussion still ahead of us".

There had been a "lot of investigating and reporting as part of a standard process" by the Defence Force, Mr English said.

"So there will be plenty of material there to corroborate what the Chief of Defence Force is saying."

He said he would have to take advice about whether that footage could be declassified.

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