A probe into whether UK soldiers stormed the houses of two innocent Afghan families and summarily executed their relatives began Wednesday, part of an effort by investigators looking into allegations of war crimes committed by the British Armed Forces in Afghanistan – and the purported coverups that followed them.
The two families, the Saifullahs and the Noorzais, lost four relatives each during separate incidents in February 2011 and October 2012. They have been seeking justice for more than a decade.
The independent inquiry, commissioned by Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, was first announced in December. A member of the Noorzai family at the time recounted how his two brothers and his brother-in-law were all killed.
“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,” the individual said. “My family has waited 10 years to find out why this happened.”
While the probe stems from the two families’ legal battles, it will cover “numerous” alleged crimes committed in Afghanistan from mid-2010 until mid-2013, including those investigated by prominent British media organizations such as the The Sunday Times and BBC Panorama.
Charles Anthony Haddon-Cave, the judge presiding over the investigation, asked anyone with information about the incidents in question to get in touch with his team. However, there is no clear mechanism yet on how his team would communicate with witnesses in Afghanistan, which is currently under the rule of the Taliban – the group British and American forces fought for years before the US withdrawal in 2021.
Though some of the inquiry’s work, including several hearings, will be conducted behind closed doors due to national security reasons, Haddon-Cave said he intends to “hold open hearings where possible and where appropriate.”
“Everybody has to understand the material I and my team are dealing with is highly sensitive,” he added.
This is not the first time the British Armed Forces has been investigated for committing potential war crimes and then covering them up. The International Criminal Court launched a preliminary investigation into the British military’s conduct in Iraq but ended the examination in 2020 without pursuing an investigation due in part to the “inadequate” response of the British army at the time.
The inquiry will also examine the previous Royal Military Police investigation that produced no prosecutions. A significant part of the inquiry’s work will be to determine “whether there was a coverup, when, by whom, [and] at what level,” Haddon-Cave said.
Haddon-Cave said he has been assured by the relevant authorities that his team’s work will not be impeded. He said he has the power to compel witnesses and order the reproduction of documents.
“I’m very hopeful that there will be full cooperation, not least because what we are looking at here is really restoring the reputation of the military and the country,” he said.