An independent inquiry into allegations British troops unlawfully killed Afghan civilians is gathering pace, its chairman said today.
Lord Justice Charles Haddon-Cave announced at the first public hearing that “a growing number of individuals are already coming forward, with significant information”.
He said his call for evidence, made at a press conference in March, “is already yielding results”.
Haddon-Cave has been appointed by defence secretary Ben Wallace to probe claims British soldiers executed dozens of civilians and enemy prisoners in Afghanistan between 2010 and 2013.
He will also look into whether the killings “were covered up to prevent what had taken place ever coming to light”.
The quality of earlier investigations by the Royal Military Police (RMP) is another area he can review.
Speaking from the Royal Courts of Justice in London, Haddon-Cave commented: “It is clearly important that anyone who has broken the law is referred to the relevant authorities for investigation; and equally, those who have done nothing wrong should rightly have the cloud of suspicion lifted from them.”
He added: “This is critical, both for the reputation of the Armed Forces and the country.”
Last week the Chief of the Defence Staff Admiral Radakin told the military community he expected “all relevant individuals in Defence to cooperate proactively with the inquiry” and ordered “maximum engagement”.
The Official Secrets Act will be waived for veterans and serving personnel who need to approach the inquiry with relevant information.
A lawyer for the inquiry, Oliver Glasgow KC, outlined encrypted channels through which people could securely provide evidence.
Lawyers for the Saifullah and Noorzai families, who allege eight of their relatives were murdered by the SAS in night raids, were present.
The inquiry was only launched after they brought judicial review proceedings against the MoD, claiming RMP investigations had been inadequate.
A member of the Saifullah family welcomed the opening of the inquiry, commenting: “I did not ever think this would happen. I am extremely happy that there are people who value the loss of life of my family, of Afghans, enough to investigate. I hope now that an investigation has opened that those who have committed these crimes can be held responsible.”
A Noorzai family member has previously said: “I was handcuffed, beaten and interrogated outside our family home by British soldiers. My relatives and friend were each shot in the head as they sat drinking tea. My family has waited 10 years to find out why this happened.”
Witnesses are expected to appear before the inquiry from October, although some sessions may be held in private to protect national security.
Documents disclosed during the judicial review proceedings suggested the SAS had executed prisoners.
In one email, a British officer described four of the deaths as “latest massacre!” Another soldier expressed concerns to a special forces officer that “a pillow was put over the head of an individual being killed with a pistol.”
A special forces commander wrote: “If we don’t believe this, then no one else will and when the next Wikileaks occurs then we will be dragged down with them.”