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’

Scott Morrison says he has pressed Donald Trump for help to prevent the release of an Afghan man who was convicted of murdering three Australian soldiers in Afghanistan.

The prime minister said the Australian government would continue to push “as hard as we can” for the continued detention of the former Afghan soldier known as Hekmatullah, after reports he could be released as a result of peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

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.

Australian defence officials contacted the families of the three Australians late last week to inform them Hekmatullah was likely to be one the 5,000 prisoners set to be released after prisoner swap negotiations, the ABC reported.

Morrison told reporters in Canberra on Monday that he had raised the issue directly with the US president. He said the defence minister, Linda Reynolds, and the foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, had also raised the issue with their American counterparts at the Ausmin talks in Washington late last month.

“This has been a matter of very regular and persistent petitioning on our behalf,” the prime minister said.

“It is a matter that I’ve written to the president about. It is a matter of keen interest to Australia and we’ve reminded them of that.”

Morrison said Hekmatullah was “responsible for murdering three Australians and our position is that he should never be released”. Morrison argued such a release would not contribute to regional peace.

“That is the position that we will continue to maintain and we’ll maintain it strongly,” he said.

“I can’t promise you the outcome we all want here, but it is certainly the outcome we will continue to press for as hard as we can.”

The families issued a joint statement to say the news came as “a crushing blow” and that they believed Hekmatullah should have been executed in line with the sentence issued by the court in Afghanistan, the Australian newspaper reported.

Poate’s father, Hugh, told the newspaper the news of the likely release was “like deflating a balloon”.

Hekmatullah’s potential release stems from a peace agreement between the US and the Taliban that was reached in February this year.

The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said last week 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.

Under the February agreement, the US committed to “work with all relevant sides on a plan to expeditiously release combat and political prisoners as a confidence-building measure with the coordination and approval of all relevant sides”.

It flagged the release of up to 5,000 Taliban fighters in return for the release of up to 1,000 government security forces. According to the text of the agreement, the Taliban committed “that its released prisoners will be committed to the responsibilities mentioned in this agreement so that they will not pose a threat to the security of the United States and its allies”.

The deal also included a commitment to withdraw from Afghanistan all military forces of the US, its allies, and coalition partners. There have been some difficulties and delays in implementing the prisoner release aspect of the deal.

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.

In 2013, an Australian Defence Force inquiry found there was a failure to provide appropriate force protection at the Wahab base where the soldiers were killed despite sufficient resources being available.

A Queensland coroner who also investigated the deaths found that an order from headquarters to increase security at patrol bases had not been passed down to troops on the ground.

The opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, said news of the potential release would be “a source of great distress for the families of the victims”.

“This is a critical issue for the families but also for justice,” Albanese said.

“This man should not be released, and Australia needs to make the strongest possible representations to both the Afghan government and to the United States to ensure that this doesn’t happen.”


Daniel Hurst

The GuardianTramp

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