Australia expresses ‘sorrow’ after Afghan army deserter Hekmatullah, who killed three ADF soldiers, set free

Hekmatullah, who is convicted of 2012 murders, was released from house arrest in Qatar after Kabul fell to Taliban

The Australian government has expressed “sorrow” after a former Afghan soldier convicted of murdering three Australian soldiers in Afghanistan was released from custody in Qatar.

Hekmatullah was convicted of murdering three Australian soldiers – Corporal Stjepan Milosevic, Private Robert Poate and Sapper James Martin – as they played cards at a patrol base north of Tarin Kowt in August 2012.

The Australian newspaper reports that Hekmatullah was released from house arrest in Qatar, soon after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in August, and that he is presumed to have returned to Afghanistan.

Hekmatullah had been in Qatar since being transferred from Afghanistan in September last year. When contacted for comment, an Australian government spokesperson confirmed Hekmatullah’s release.

“The Australian government is aware that that Afghan army deserter Hekmatullah, who murdered three off-duty Australians, has been released from custody,” the spokesperson said in a statement on Monday.

“His whereabouts cannot be verified.”

It is understood Australian army representatives are in regular contact with the Milosevic, Martin and Poate families and had alerted them to this possibility.

Australian soldiers Sapper James Martin, Lance Corporal Stjepan Milosevic and Private Robert were killed as they played cards at a patrol base in Afghanistan in August 2012.
Australian soldiers Sapper James Martin, Lance Corporal Stjepan Milosevic and Private Robert were killed as they played cards at a patrol base in Afghanistan in August 2012. Photograph: Australian defence force

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, said last year that the Australian government would continue to push “as hard as we can” for Hekmatullah’s continued detention, after reports he could be released as a result of US-backed peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

On Monday the government spokesperson said Australia’s position “has always been that Hekmatullah should serve a just and proportionate sentence, appropriate to his crimes, and not be granted early release or pardon”.

“We made repeated representations over a long period advocating this position to relevant governments,” the spokesperson said.

“We share the sorrow of Australians at this outcome and again offer our condolences to the families and the loved ones of our three fallen soldiers.”

Hugh Jeffrey, a first assistant secretary at the defence department, told a Senate inquiry on Monday: “The Australian government became aware of Hekmatullah’s release from Qatar through highly sensitive intelligence which the government is not able to comment on directly.”

Jeffrey did not specify when the Australian government received that information, given the sensitivity of the matter.

Geoff Tooth, an assistant secretary at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and a former head of mission in Kabul, told the same inquiry Australia had made “around 180” diplomatic representations on the issue of Hekmatullah over the last couple of years, at all levels of government.

The Labor opposition said its thoughts were with the families of the victims. It called on the government to provide “a full explanation” about its knowledge of the matter.

“Mr Morrison has an obligation to the families of these three men, and all Australians, to explain what steps his government is taking with coalition partners to confirm his location and ensure he will be subject to international movement restrictions,” the Labor frontbenchers Penny Wong and Brendan O’Connor said in a statement.

The issue was raised during the first hearing of the Senate inquiry into Australia’s engagement in Afghanistan, which is also expected to look at the military strategy and the handling of this year’s withdrawal.

In written accounts that are set to be provided to the inquiry, Afghans who have applied for Australian humanitarian visas have said they are living in fear as the Taliban are “hunting us down like animals”.

The Senate’s foreign affairs, defence and trade references committee is investigating how the Australian government should respond to the latest developments in Afghanistan, after the fall of the country to Taliban in August.

Hekmatullah went on the run after the fatal attack on the Australian soldiers but was captured in Pakistan in February 2013 – about six months later – and then brought to trial in Afghanistan.

He was transferred from Afghanistan to Qatar on 10 September 2020, in a move government officials said at the time was part of “a compromise organised by the US government with the government of Qatar to enable the commencement of the Afghanistan peace negotiations”.

Officials told an estimates hearing last year that there had been “a continuing series of interventions” by Morrison, ministers Marise Payne and Linda Reynolds, and officials to the governments of Qatar, the US and Afghanistan to ensure they understood the strength of feeling in Australia that Hekmatullah should never be released.

The then US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said at the time that the release of prisoners was “unpopular” but it would lead to a “reduction of violence and direct talks resulting in a peace agreement and an end to the war” in Afghanistan.


Daniel Hurst Foreign affairs and defence correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Australia will not be able to rescue all Afghans who served alongside military, Scott Morrison says
The prime minister acknowledges veterans’ concerns but defends government against allegations of delay

Ben Doherty and Daniel Hurst

17, Aug, 2021 @8:05 AM

Article image
Afghan security guards plead for help after Australia suddenly closes Kabul embassy
Afghans say they have been abandoned and face retribution from the Taliban once Australian forces leave

Ben Doherty and Daniel Hurst

25, May, 2021 @7:45 AM

Article image
Australia urged to do the ‘right thing’ and evacuate Afghan allies at risk of being killed by Taliban
Retired Australian officer estimates 1,000 Afghan allies and their families are in danger and need to be resettled in the coming weeks

Ben Doherty

06, Jun, 2021 @5:30 PM

Article image
Dozens of Afghan partners of Australians fear being left off evacuation flights
Calls for urgent help for Afghans waiting for visa applications to be processed as Australia prepares to ramp up Kabul evacuations

Daniel Hurst Foreign affairs and defence correspondent

19, Aug, 2021 @10:23 AM

Article image
Australian politics live: WA to change border quarantine rules on 8 December - as it happened
Chinese Embassy official dismisses ‘rage and roar’ over controversial tweet; Paul Fletcher complains to ABC chair about Four Corners program. This blog is now closed

Naaman Zhou (now) and Amy Remeikis (earlier)

01, Dec, 2020 @8:24 AM

Article image
Scott Morrison presses Trump for continued detention of ex-Afghan soldier who killed three Australians
Hekmatullah’s potential release is the result of a peace agreement between US and Taliban but PM says ‘he should never be released’

Daniel Hurst

10, Aug, 2020 @4:15 AM

Article image
Australia rescues just 26 people from Afghanistan on evacuation flight with space for 128
Scott Morrison signals some 3,000 Afghans will be resettled amid mounting calls for Australia to accept a greater number of refugees

Daniel Hurst Foreign affairs and defence correspondent

18, Aug, 2021 @5:57 AM

Article image
Australia warns citizens in Afghanistan to stay away from Kabul airport over risk of terrorist attack
Scott Morrison says 1,200 people were flown out of Afghanistan overnight, but the ‘situation is deteriorating’

Daniel Hurst

26, Aug, 2021 @3:39 AM

Article image
Interpreter for Australian military shot amid chaotic scenes at Kabul airport
Messages from Australian officials warn of gunshots and danger at airport as man is treated for wound to his leg

Kate Banville

18, Aug, 2021 @8:20 AM

Article image
Australian foreign minister was told to close embassy before May visit to Kabul, documents reveal
Dfat timeline shows Marise Payne received formal advice to shutter embassy five days before meeting with then-president Ashraf Ghani

Daniel Hurst Foreign affairs and defence correspondent

13, Sep, 2021 @5:30 PM