A public inquiry into allegations of war crimes by British armed forces in Afghanistan will be held partly in secret, the chair has decided.
Sir Charles Haddon-Cave ruled some evidence, witness identities and testimonies will be limited to closed sessions which the media and public are prohibited from attending.
It comes after the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Royal Military Police (RMP), which is accused of failing to investigate the claims, sought sweeping restrictions citing national security and privacy.
The reasons for the chair’s conclusions are laid out in a ruling that itself is private.
In his decision, Lord Justice Haddon-Cave said there are “cogent national security and other reasons why many hearings will need to be held entirely in closed [behind closed doors].” Sky News has asked the inquiry to explain what “other reasons” means.
The chair said he studied the evidence and concluded “for reasons set out in my closed ruling, it amounts to a strong and compelling case that there is a real risk that serious national security damage would be caused” if the MoD’s application for secrecy was not granted.
The order withholds from disclosure information relating to methods, tactics and equipment of UK and foreign partner operatives, as well as details of the identity of MoD and RMP witnesses. It prohibits public access to “risk of information,” though the chair himself seeks clarity on what that means.
The allegations of extrajudicial killings are part of a BBC and The Times investigation which claimed rogue SAS units executed innocent civilians during a campaign of night raids set up to capture Taliban fighters.
Evidence submitted to the inquiry claims as many as 80 people were killed in suspicious circumstances by three out of four SAS squadrons between 2010 and 2013.
The documents outlined the high kill rate of the squadrons, with one soldier shooting 35 people dead in a single six-month tour.
‘Blanket’ restrictions not in interest of open justice – victims’ families
The victims’ families had argued “blanket” restrictions were not in the interest of open justice. Public hearings may be painful and humiliating, they submitted, but “reputational damage is not a blanket justification for anonymity”.
In an unusual move, the chair has also denied the families access to special advocates whose roles are to examine material heard in closed sessions and to represent the excluded party’s interests.
Tessa Gregory, partner at Leigh Day solicitors, who is acting for the Afghan families, told Sky News: “We are carefully considering this ruling and its implications for the conduct of the inquiry.
“It is of utmost important to our clients, who alleged their relatives were murdered by UK Special Forces in Afghanistan, that the truth is uncovered and that they are able to participate fully in the inquiry.”
Sky News and other media outlets challenge application
Sky News is part of a number of media outlets that submitted challenges to the application for restrictive orders from the MoD and RMP.
An MoD spokesperson said: “The independent statutory inquiry relating to Afghanistan will investigate alleged unlawful activity by British Armed Forces during deliberate detention operations between mid-2010 to mid-2013.
“It is not appropriate for the MoD to comment on cases which are within the scope of the statutory inquiry and it is up to the statutory inquiry team, led by Lord Justice Haddon-Cave, to determine which allegations are investigated.”