Lawyers for Afghan families who say their loved ones were unlawfully killed by the British army have called for more openness at the inquiry set up to investigate potential war crimes.
The Ministry of Defence, which had sought closed hearings at the inquiry, confirmed that UK Special Forces (UKSF) are “the central focus” of the Independent Inquiry Relating to Afghanistan.
The concession came after weeks of efforts by the MoD to keep details of UKSF’s alleged involvement in the events secret.
Ahead of preliminary hearings this week, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said the confirmation of UKSF involvement was made “in the exceptional circumstances” of the inquiry and did not indicate a change in government policy on commenting about UKSF deployment and activities.
The inquiry, chaired by Lord Justice Haddon-Cave, is set to investigate whether serious crimes were committed by special forces in Afghanistan, whether there were proper and effective investigations by the Royal Military Police, and whether the circumstances of any unlawful killings were covered up.
The claims are part of a BBC and Times investigation which claimed rogue SAS units executed innocent civilians during a campaign of night raids set up to capture Taliban fighters.
New evidence submitted to the inquiry suggests as many as 80 people were killed in suspicious circumstances by three out of four SAS squadrons between 2010 and 2013.
The documents outline the high kill rate of the squadrons during their six-month tours of duty in Afghanistan, with one soldier shooting 35 people dead in a single tour.
Mr Richard Hermer KC, representing the bereaved families, told the hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice he has concerns about the manner in which the MoD calibrates national security.
Read more on Sky News:
Firm that owned the submersible Titan suspends commercial operations
Twitter threatens to sue Facebook owner Meta over new Threads platform
UK plans new powers to sanction Iran after threats to kill or kidnap people in Britain
“Until the eve of this hearing, the MoD was seriously seeking to contend that national security precluded this investigation from even referring to the fact that the subject matter was UKSF,” he said.
Mr Hermer said the families were “desperate for the truth to be established.”
He argued that naming special forces without identifying particular regiments would “infantilise the approach of this inquiry”, adding that some names are already in the public domain – on the MoD’s own website and on publicly available LinkedIn profiles belonging to military personnel.
Not naming individual regiments, Mr Hermer’s team argued, would risk unfairly tainting all members of the British armed forces.
The MoD is also pursuing automatic anonymity for all UKSF personnel and for witness testimonies to be heard in closed sessions, which would be inaccessible to the public or journalists, arguing that not doing so could lead to risk of life and detrimental career consequences for the service personnel involved.
Image: Lord Justice Haddon-Cave is chairing the inquiry Mr Hermer said unless risk to life is immediate, such actions could be detrimental to the inquiry’s credibility.
“Open justice is a bedrock principle of common law, now embedded in the Inquiries Act itself,” he said.
“It is also axiomatic that, in cases concerning allegations against the state of the nature alleged here, the need to ensure that public faith in the integrity of the process is maintained is a fortiori.
“And it hardly needs saying that, where part of the investigation concerns allegations of systemic cover-up, the need for as much transparency as possible could not be greater.”
Sky News is among a number of news organisations which have challenged the MoD’s application for secret hearings.
The chair’s decision is due later this month.