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UK minister says he ‘cannot disprove’ claims Afghans were unlawfully killed

<span>Johnny Mercer arriving in Downing Street for a cabinet meeting on Monday. The veterans minister completed his final tour of Afghanistan in 2010.</span><span>Photograph: Aaron Chown/PA</span>
Johnny Mercer arriving in Downing Street for a cabinet meeting on Monday. The veterans minister completed his final tour of Afghanistan in 2010.Photograph: Aaron Chown/PA

The UK’s minister for veterans, Johnny Mercer, has effectively admitted in front of a public inquiry that he believed members of the SAS had engaged in dozens of unlawful killings of Afghan civilians between 2010 and 2013.

Mercer told the inquiry on Tuesday that at one point, shortly after first becoming a minister in 2019, Mercer said he told the then defence secretary, Ben Wallace, that “something stinks”. His boss replied: “There is no new evidence, Johnny,” and the cabinet minster chose not to take any further action.

The former army officer said he had gradually become aware of the SAS allegations, starting with “an odour and pallor” that dated back to his last tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2010, followed by at least two specific warnings colleagues gave him in 2017 after he had become an MP.

When he became a minister, Wallace asked him to get to the bottom of the situation, but Mercer said he felt he was “being gamed” by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and he found meetings with the then head of the army, Gen Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, the director of UK special forces and other officials unconvincing.

Mercer told the inquiry that while he did not want to believe reports that the elite British soldiers had killed Afghans while sleeping, or had killed them on night raids, his investigations could find nothing to contradict them.

Giving evidence, Mercer said he knew people who were members of the SAS at the time, including “friends who were killed in operations, I have friends who were never the same person again after Afghanistan”.

Despite that, the minister concluded in testimony given shortly before lunchtime on Tuesday: “I don’t want to believe it, but at every stage I have tried to find something to disprove these allegations but I have been unable to.”

Mercer gave evidence throughout the day, covering what he knew from when he completed his final tour of Afghanistan in 2010 through to his two stints as minister for veterans’ affairs, between 2019 and 2021 and again from July 2022.

Proceedings were repeatedly interrupted for national security reasons after Mercer inadvertently named soldiers covered by secrecy orders.

The minister said he found explanations given by senior officers and MoD officials to be “unbelievable”. He said an investigator brought in by the Royal Military Police to review the progress of a war crimes inquiry known as Operation Northmoor had asked for body camera footage to be supplied from 10 randomly chosen SAS operations, only to be told no footage existed for any of the operations selected.

Full-motion video was a “go/no go” requirement for SAS operations after “a particular operation in 2006 that didn’t go too well”, Mercer said, adding that backups were taken of all camera footage. Mercer said he told Wallace it was “not a plausible explanation to me to say that we have no full-motion video”.

Mercer’s most uncomfortable time at the inquiry came when he acknowledged that, as an MP in 2017, he had been given two warnings by military friends about the seriousness of the allegations. At the time he was campaigning to halt a wave of largely false claims of abuse conducted by British soldiers in Iraq.

One was described as a senior officer who warned him about the scale of the official investigation into SAS summary killings. The second was a former fellow soldier who said he had been asked to carry a “dropped weapon” that would be used to fabricate evidence of an attack on the elite soldiers and justify civilian killings on night raids in Helmand province.

The inquiry counsel, Oliver Glasgow KC, repeatedly asked Mercer to provide the names of the two people who had warned him, either in public or by writing their names on a piece of paper, but the minister said he did not want to.

“The simple reality at this stage is I’m not prepared to burn them – not when, in my judgment, you are already speaking to people who have far greater knowledge of what was going on,” Mercer said.

The presiding judge, Charles Haddon-Cave, asked Mercer to reflect on his refusal to provide the names, and said he hoped the minister would change his mind in the future. The inquiry was independent of government and used to handling sensitive information, he added.

The inquiry was told the MoD “would not confirm or deny” the detail of Mercer’s evidence. Later the ministry said it fully supported the inquiry, which was set up by Wallace in December 2022, about three years after Mercer said he had warned the minister.