The first public hearing of the Operation Burnham inquiry has opened in Wellington, with protestors gathered outside the hearing venue and others inside holding up signs.
Photo: Photo / Pool
The inquiry is investigating allegations that members of the Defence Force killed six Afghan civilians during a military operation in 2010 and the military then covered up what happened.
Today’s hearing began with a karakia and waiata, followed by a welcome from one of the Inquiry members, the former Supreme Court Judge, Sir Terrence Arnold QC.
Before presentations began, the lawyer for the Afghanistan villagers, Deborah Manning sought a closed meeting with the Inquiry, but Sir Terence Arnold refused that.
Ms Manning said she had several concerns, which she wished to have addressed, including the taking of evidence from the Afghanistan villagers.
“Things are becoming critical in terms of the timing of that; there are significant logistical issues and inter-linked with that, the funding has still not been resolved, which is directly impacting on our ability to participate – and this has been going on for nearly a year now.
“An extension for the Inquiry’s reporting requirements has been sought from the Attorney-General and it is not clear if it has been granted, or how long has been sought, which has a direct impact on us as core participants.
“This has led to a lack of clarity for us in terms of the work we need to be preparing for, which is directly impacting on [Ms Manning], both professionally and personally.”
Sir Terrence declined her request for a meeting with the Inquiry and asked her to put her concerns in writing.
The former head of the Australian Defence Force, Sir Angus Houston is now making a presentation, outlining Australian involvement in military operations in Afghanistan.
Photo: Photo / Sarah Atkinson
At the start of his statement he offered condolences to New Zealand for the Christchurch terror attacks.
As he spoke, a protestor in the hearing room held up a photo of a small child, with the caption, “Fatima aged 3, killed by NZSAS terror raids”.
Sir Angus told the inquiry that early on, international military operations in Afghanistan were not unified and lacked cohesion, whereas the Taliban insurgents had clear lines of authority and direction.
He also pointed to the difficulties encountered in Afghanistan, including non-existent means of communications and infrastructure.
“The extent of paved road outside the capital, Kabul, was minimal; and the prevalence of the opium/narcotics trade and the crime this manifested.
“If these conditions did make conditions easy for our forces, then there was also a highly capable, organised and decentralised insurgency seeking to evict the foreign forces.”
Sir Angus said he would not be casting any judgment on the Inquiry’s central focus – an operation by the New Zealand Defence Force, because to do so would be entirely inappropriate.
Press release from Hit and Run Campaign:
Human rights campaigners demonstrated this morning outside the first public ‘module’ of the Government Inquiry into the SAS killing of civilians in ‘Operation Burnham’. The campaigners hung a 7m x 2m banner from the building opposite the hearing which is being held on The Terrace. The banner said: ‘Palmer’s secret inquiry is a farce’.
They have labelled the inquiry a farce, as much of it will be held behind closed doors, locking out victims and public. The Inquiry instead has offered public ‘modules’ on other topics, the first being the history of the Afghanistan war.
“This module is a token gesture to placate the public, in the otherwise secret inquiry. It’s nothing more than a patronising history lesson, when it should be holding the NZDF to account,” said spokesperson Sarah Atkinson. “What sort of inquiry gives patronising history lessons, and shuts out the victims? This ‘module’ is a red herring, a total waste of time and money.”
The campaigners are part of the Hit and Run Inquiry Campaign. They pushed for a government inquiry into the 2010 NZSAS-led raid, known as Operation Burnham resulting in civilian deaths and injuries in Tirgiran Valley, Afghanistan. While initially elated that an inquiry could be held, they have come to believe that the NZDF are dictating the process of the inquiry.
“We have been working on this issue for a long time. Lots of street messages – many pulled down by NZDF, protests and leafleting. We hoped the inquiry would open and transparent, but it has all gone secret – secret evidence, secret documents, secret hearings – which aids the cover up. After a whole year all we get is this ridiculous ‘module’ and nothing about the villagers and what actually happened,” said spokesperson Mary Fisher
Campaigners also say that the inquiry is behind schedule. The inquiry was intended to take one year from its start date of 11 April 2018, almost one year ago.
“One year later and nothing’s happened. The NZDF is dragging its feet, and the heads of the inquiry are letting it happen. It’s incredibly frustrating to realise how much power the Defence Force has over an inquiry that’s supposedly investigating them. It feels like the cover up never stopped. We’re stuck on the sidelines, watching a whitewash in action,” said spokesperson Mary Fisher.