16 Aug 2010

NZ role in Afghan prisoner transfers probed

9:09 pm on 16 August 2010

The Government is investigating whether New Zealand soldiers in Afghanistan have handed over prisoners to the secret police.

High Court judges in Britain recently upheld a ban on British forces transferring prisoners to the National Directorate of Security in Kabul because of the risk they may be tortured.

Amnesty International says there is good evidence prisoners held by the National Directorate of Security are being tortured.

Defence Minister Wayne Mapp has confirmed that New Zealand's SAS works with an Afghan unit that has transferred prisoners to the centre named in the British judgement.

Dr Mapp told Morning Report it was not possible to rule out that, in the past, New Zealand soldiers may have been involved in securing prisoners who went to facilities where they were tortured.

However, he said this issue was of general concern to all International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) nations and that ISAF headquarters had been working with the Afghan government and the International Red Cross to lift standards.

Dr Mapp said the Afghan unit makes the arrests, not the New Zealand troops. He said the British High Court judgement was sobering reading and is asking for further legal reports on it.

"New Zealanders want to be able to see, the Defence Force itself wants to be able to see, that we observe all principles of international law."

Asked whether the legal reports would be released, he said that was a "fair request."

Prime Minister John Key said on Monday afternoon Government has taken note of the British court ruling but says New Zealand soldiers themselves have never held anyone in Afghanistan.

"In terms of the Crisis Response Unit, where they have detained someone and New Zealand has worked alongside them, a full registry of all the names is kept and that's open and given to ... the likes of the Red Cross," he said.

Legal obligations

Amnesty International's New Zealand chief executive, Patrick Holmes, says there are international legal obligations if it is proved New Zealand defence forces are knowingly handing over detainees to a regime which is systematically abusing those detainees.

The organisation wants the Government to reveal how New Zealand's SAS soldiers in Afghanistan hand over detainees to other forces and what safeguards are in place for the prisoners' protection.

Labour Party leader Phil Goff says there needs to be a way to independently verify that detainees caught by New Zealand's elite soldiers are later treated humanely.

Mr Goff understands the New Zealand Government has a written agreement with Afghanistan seeking to make sure prisoners are treated in line with the Geneva Convention.

Mr Goff says that needs to be seen by an impartial organisation, such as the Red Cross, and it is necessary to have an assurance that people captured by the SAS are not later subjected to torture.

Former commander has confidence in SAS

A former New Zealand joint forces commander and Chief of Army says he has absolute confidence in the ethical standards of SAS soldiers in Afghanistan.

Retired Major General Lou Gardiner left the military in 2009 before the SAS deployment with Afghanistan's Crisis Response Unit.

He says from his time in the Defence Force he can say New Zealanders can have confidence in the SAS.

"I'm confident whatever arrangements have been put in place are being followed to the letter of the law."