Australia said on Thursday that its special forces were suspected of being responsible for 39 unlawful killings in Afghanistan, as it released a long-awaited report into alleged war crimes committed in the South Asian nation.
Australia launched the inquiry in 2016, amid reports from whistle-blowers and in the local media of the alleged killing of unarmed men and children that the government initially tried to suppress.
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Detailing the findings, General Angus Campbell, chief of the Defence Force, said the investigation found evidence that members of the Australian special forces had killed prisoners, farmers or other civilians, and offered his unreserved apologies to the people of Afghanistan for any wrongdoing.
The report “found there to be credible information to substantiate 23 incidents of alleged unlawful killing of 39 people by 25 Australian special forces personnel predominantly from the Special Air Service Regiment,” Campbell told reporters.
“These findings allege the most serious breaches of military conduct and professional values,” he said, adding: “The unlawful killing, of civilians and prisoners is never acceptable.”
Some of those allegedly responsible are still serving in the military while others have left the armed forces. The inquiry recommended the 23 incidents, involving 19 individuals, be referred to the police for criminal investigation.
In a letter accompanying the inquiry’s report, James Gaynor, the inspector general of the Australian Defence Force, described the nature and extent of the alleged misconduct as “very confronting”, noting there were additional allegations that members of the Australian military had treated people under their control with cruelty.
“None of these alleged crimes was committed during the heat of battle,” he wrote. “The alleged victims were non-combatants or no longer combatants.”
During the course of the inquiry, New South Wales Supreme Court Judge Paul Brereton and his team interviewed 423 witnesses – some on multiple occasions – and reviewed more than 20,000 documents and 25,000 images.
The team “encountered enormous challenges in eliciting truthful disclosures in the closed, closely-bonded and highly compartmentalised Special Forces community,” the report noted in explaining the length of the inquiry.
Large chunks of the 531-page report were redacted because of classified security information or because they contained material that could compromise future criminal proceedings.
The inquiry found the 23 incidents of unlawful killings would be “the war crime of murder” if accepted by a jury, and a further two incidents “the war crime of cruel treatment”. Some incidents involved a single victim, and others, multiple people, and took place between 2009 and 2013.
It also found that weapons had been planted on some of the victims, while junior soldiers were sometimes forced to shoot prisoners for a “first kill” as part of an initiation known as “blooding”.
The report said that it had probably failed to uncover all wrongdoing that had taken place during the years under investigation, and recommended a mechanism be set up to receive and assess any future allegations of war crimes in Afghanistan.
“We embarked on this inquiry in the hope that we would be able to report that the rumours of war crimes were without substance,” the report said, noting that all but two of the team were serving members of the defence forces. “None of us desired the outcome to which we have come. We are all diminished by it.”
A special investigator, who was appointed last week, will now determine whether there is sufficient evidence to move ahead with the prosecutions.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week warned the report would contain “difficult and hard news for Australians”.
The release of the report came after Morrison spoke with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
“The Prime Minister of Australia expressed his deepest sorrow over the misconduct by some Australian troops in Afghanistan,” Ghani’s office wrote on Twitter.
Al Jazeera’s Nicola Gage, reporting from Canberra, said that while any criminal cases could take years, the Australian Defence Force is expected to establish a fund to provide compensation to the families of the victims.
The Australian military was deployed alongside forces from the United States and other allies in Afghanistan following the September 11, 2001 attacks.
In the years since, a series of often-harrowing reports have emerged about the conduct of its elite special forces units – ranging from a prisoner being shot dead to save space in a helicopter to the killing of a six-year-old child in a house raid.
“Afghans have waited many years for this report to come out. And they shouldn’t have to wait many years for justice,” Elaine Pearson, Australia director at the Human Rights Watch said, calling for “swift and independent prosecutions” for the “deliberate and cold-blooded killings”.
Pearson told Al Jazeera she agreed with Australia’s decision to pursue justice through its courts, rather than the ICC.
“The ICC is a court of last resort. Australia does have the rule of law and so these cases should come to Australian courts. People should be investigated and held to account,” she said from the city of Sydney.
“But unfortunately, the experience from other countries, such as the UK, has not been very positive. We’ve seen cases where investigations have been opened and then shut down due to political interference. And that’s why its really important that [the Australian] office of the special investigator needs to be independent of the military and the politicians and it needs to have adequate resources to carry out its investigations.”
Australia has about 1,500 troops remaining in Afghanistan.
The US is also under investigation for possible war crimes in Afghanistan after the ICC authorised an investigation earlier this year. The court will also look into allegations against Afghan soldiers and Taliban armed fighters.