The New Zealand Herald

Parker ‘muddying waters’

Authors question minister’s remarks on Afghan deaths

- Reporting team Isaac Davidson, Lucy Bennett, Claire Trevett and David Fisher

Attorney-General David Parker has already muddied the waters of an inquiry into whether New Zealand elite soldiers killed civilians in Afghanista­n before it’s even got started, according to the authors of a book into the incident.

Hit & Run, by Jon Stephenson and Nicky Hager, was released a year ago. It alleged that Special Air Service (SAS) soldiers killed six Afghan civilians and injured 15 in a raid on two Afghan villages in 2010.

In launching the inquiry yesterday, Parker said he had seen video footage provided by the United States military which did not seem to corroborat­e key aspects of the book.

“The footage suggests that there was a group of armed individual­s in the village,” Parker said.

That contradict­ed the “nonthreate­ning” portrayal of the village by Hager and Stephenson, he said.

Answering questions from reporters, Parker said: “I made the comments in respect of armed people being present because I thought amongst the allegation­s that were swirling around it was unfair to the Defence Forces for that not to be public now.”

He would not describe in detail what the footage showed and he was unsure whether the inquiry would even have access to it.

While Stephenson welcomed the inquiry, he was critical of Parker’s comments about the video footage.

“In my view he’s prejudiced the inquiry and he’s provided that in- formation without any context at all and refused to answer questions about it. He’s just muddied the waters.

“He’s essentiall­y making statements that are prejudicia­l to the people who claim that their loved ones were killed or injured and done that on the basis that the allegation­s have been swirling around.

“Surely the profession­al and appropriat­e thing to do was to allow the inquiry to determine the facts, having heard all the evidence and render a verdict, not pre-empt that.”

Hager called the inquiry “very good news” but said Parker’s comments about armed people in the video was an example of NZDF using selective evidence to push its case.

“I fully expect the story that has been constructe­d [ by the NZDF] to crumble when analysed properly.”

Lawyer Deborah Manning, who is representi­ng the Afghan villagers, said it was “unfortunat­e” Parker saw fit to refer to armed people being seen in video of the raid.

But she welcomed the inquiry and believed it was covering the issues her clients felt were relevant.

In launching the inquiry, Parker said there were still unanswered questions around the raids and it remained a controvers­ial issue a year after the book was released.

“In light of that, and bearing in mind the need for the public to have confidence in the NZDF, I have decided in the public interest that an inquiry is warranted.”

The inquiry, which could last up to a year and cost an initial $2 million, will be led by former Supreme Court judge Sir Terrence Arnold and former Labour Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer. It will not have power to lay charges, but could recommend further action.

Parker expected Stephenson and Hager to be called to give evidence.

Former Defence Minister Wayne Mapp, who was in charge at the time of the raid, welcomed the inquiry, saying the raids still weighed on his mind eight years on.

“I’ve always said that an inquiry is desirable, if only to find out what actually happened.

“I have no doubt that this will entirely exonerate the SAS soldiers. It will show they acted in the best way they could as soldiers in the circumstan­ces they were in.”

National’s defence spokesman and former Defence Minister Mark Mitchell said two Defence Ministers and Prime Ministers had already reviewed NZDF evidence and the inquiry was unwarrante­d and a waste of taxpayers’ money.

Departing Defence Force chief Lieutenant General Tim Keating said yesterday that the NZDF stood by the accounts of Operation Burnham it had previously given and the book contained errors.

“It was lawfully carried out, with clear rules of engagement,” he said.

“At all times throughout this operation our NZSAS acted profession­ally and conducted themselves to the high standards expected of our special forces.”

The inquiry will also look into the alleged mistreatme­nt of Qari Miriam, an Afghan, when he was transferre­d by NZ troops to Afghan authoritie­s.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern asked Parker to look into the Hit & Run claims in February.

Her party had demanded an independen­t inquiry while in Opposition after the National-led Government refused to initiate one.

The Defence Force rejected the allegation­s made in the book, though it later conceded that the authors were correct about the location of the raid after initially saying the NZDF had “never operated’ in the villages.

Surely the . . . appropriat­e thing to do was to allow the inquiry to determine the facts. Jon Stephenson, author

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