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Transcript of press conference: 29 August 2008: Vice Chief of Defence Force, Lieutenant General David Hurley today discusses the findings of an ADF inquiry into the death of Lance Corporal Jason Marks and also a separate inquiry about detainee mistreatment.



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29/08/2008 MECC 80829/08

MEDIA CONFERENCE BY THE VICE CHIEF OF THE DEFENCE FORCE ANNOUNCEMENT RE: THE FINDINGS INTO THE DEATH OF AN AUSTRALIAN SOLDIER IN AFGHANISTAN AND CLAIMS OF MISTREATMENT OF DETAINEES

Subject: Vice Chief of Defence Force, Lieutenant General David Hurley today discusses the findings of an ADF inquiry into the death of Lance Corporal Jason Marks and also a separate inquiry about detainee mistreatment.

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LIEUTENANT GENERAL DAVID HURLEY:

I'm here this morning to release the findings of two inquiries. The first inquiry was into the death in combat of Lance Corporal Jason Marks in Afghanistan on 27 April this year. The second inquiry was into allegations of detainee mistreatment by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan on 30 April this year.

Let me begin with the inquiry into the death of Lance Corporal Jason Marks. Lance Corporal Marks was killed by Taliban extremists on the afternoon of 27 April 2008. Corporal Marks was an extremely well respected commando serving with the 4th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment (Commando) component of the Special Operations Task Group in Afghanistan.

The inquiry into the death of Corporal Marks was directed by the Chief of the Defence Force and led by Colonel David Connery.

Colonel Connery was assisted by four assistant inquiry officers, two military lawyers and two members of the Australian Defence Force investigative service.

In the report you will note Taliban extremists engaged the Special Operations Task Group element with small arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire from concealed positions while our forces were conducting a planned vehicle movement through a valley.

At the time our forces were involved in an operation aimed at denying freedom of movement to the Taliban thus improving the security for our reconstruction task force.

Corporal Marks was fatally wounded approximately 60 to 90 seconds after the battle started. Corporal Marks had directed his driver to manoeuvre their vehicle to better engage the extremists and was moving on foot to the rear of his vehicle when he was fatally shot.

The Inquiry Officer found that Corporal Marks was killed instantly by a single gunshot wound to his head.

Corporal Marks was wearing the standard Special Forces issue chest webbing, including front and rear ballistic plates, but was not wearing a helmet.

The Inquiry Officer concluded that wearing a helmet would not have saved his life. Our Special Forces soldiers are highly experienced and have operated in Afghanistan since 2002. They are best placed to make decisions about the equipment they wear for the operations they conduct.

In the same contact four other Special Forces Task Group soldiers were wounded by Taliban fire.

The Inquiry Officer found that the casevac, or medical evacuation procedures, worked well and resulted in the effective and fast movement of casualties from the battle area to the Dutch medical facility in Tarin Kowt. All four wounded soldiers are undergoing rehabilitation in Australia. It was the view of the Inquiry Officer that a Chief of Defence Force commission of inquiry would not identify any new facts into the circumstances of Corporal Marks' death and as such was not required.

The Chief of Defence Force has endorsed the conclusion of the Inquiry Officer and in accordance with Defence inquiry regulations the Minister agreed that a commission of inquiry into Corporal Marks' death was not warranted. The Inquiry Officer also recommended that Defence policy concerning family notification following combat incidents be reviewed. The Inquiry Officer found that the policy could be improved with some minor revisions to clarify notification priorities and reporting requirements.

Defence will be releasing a redacted version of the inquiry report on the Defence website and has offered a copy to the New South Wales Coroner. We have already brief Corporal Marks' family and the units involved of the inquiry outcomes.

Let me now turn to the inquiry into the allegations of detainee mistreatment by Australian soldiers on 30 April this year.

I will provide some background on the operation in which the detainees were captured, outline the allegations and then deal with each of the allegations in turn. During the afternoon of 29 April 2008 a Special Operations Task Group element was tasked to clear a house and compound of interest in the Oruzgan Province.

The compound was suspected to be the location of a Taliban extremist commander. During the operation the Australian soldiers came under fire from the Taliban extremists and a short but intense battle ensued. Several Taliban extremists were killed in the battle. There were no Australian casualties.

Four Afghans suspected of being Taliban extremists were detained by the Special

Operations Task Group soldiers during the subsequent clearance of the compound. The detainees were safety extracted to a forward operating base, isolated from one another and secured within available facilities in accordance with standard procedures.

One of the detainees was released early on 30 April as it was deemed that he was of little intelligence value. The remaining three detainees were transported to Tarin Kowt and handed over to Dutch detention facility staff on the evening of 30 April.

Several allegations were made at the time of this activity with only one individual claiming to have witnessed mistreatment taking place. The specific initial allegations were that Australian soldiers had pushed or bashed a detainee against a wall within the forward operating base, that Australian soldiers had hit a detainee with a stick and removed his trousers and a general complaint that Australians handled detainees too roughly.

An International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, fact-finding investigation conducted by a British Army colonel into the complaints introduced a further allegation concerning heavy bruising to the face of a detainee. The commander of the Afghan National Army units in the area further alleged that four detainees were taken to Tarin Kowt, stripped naked, beaten and mistreated and that Australian soldiers heavily beat four civilians.

Let me re-emphasise how seriously we take these allegations. On becoming aware of the allegations I, as the then Chief of Joint Operations, appointed Colonel Connery's team to conduct an inquiry into the allegations. Colonel Connery was already in Afghanistan at the time inquiring into the death of Lance Corporal Marks.

Fifteen personnel were interviewed including Australian Special Operations soldiers, Afghan National Army personnel, including the soldier who made the original allegations and International Security Assistance Force members.

The inquiry team also reviewed operational documents and detainee processing documentation for three of the four detainees, during the course of the inquiry. Documentation from the detainee who was released early on the morning of 30 April was not reviewed as it had been inadvertently destroyed. The Inquiry Officer noted that no specific allegations were made about the treatment of this detainee.

The Inquiry Officer found that the allegations did not stand up to scrutiny when compared with the available evidence.

I'll now briefly discuss the details relating to each allegation.

In relation to the first allegation, that Australian soldiers pushed or bashed a detainee into wall, the Inquiry Officer found that the medical evidence and witness statements by Australian soldiers, coalition partners and detainees did not support the allegations. Regarding the allegation that Australian soldiers hit a detainee with a stick and removed his trousers, the Inquiry Officer found that the medical evidence and witness statement

by Australian soldiers, coalition partners and detainees did not support claims that detainee had been beaten with a stick.

The Inquiry Officer found that the suspected Taliban extremist was wearing a three-quarter length shirt and no trousers when captured. Being seen dressed like this is a culturally sensitive issue in Afghanistan. Once the cultural sensitivity surrounding this issue was made known, the man was provided with trousers.

Regarding the allegation that Australian soldiers handled detainees too roughly, the Inquiry Officer found that the actions of the Australian soldiers, particularly the positively controlled movement of a blindfolded and handcuffed detainee to tactical questioning was consistent with common practices and legal and international requirements.

Regarding the allegation that a detainee suffered heavy bruising to his face, the Inquiry Officer found that medical evidence, witness statements and the photographic record from the detention facility did not support this allegation.

Regarding the allegation that four detainees were stripped naked, beaten and mistreated, the Inquiry Officer found that medical evidence, witness statements and the photographic record from the detention facility did not support this allegation. The Inquiry Officer found that the allegations were most likely the result of a young Afghan soldier at the forward operating base being culturally offended by what he believed to be harsh treatment of an Afghan elder and an Afghan amputee by non-Afghan personnel.

The Inquiry Officer also found that the complaint from senior Afghan officers was based on this initial complaint and did not refer to additional incidents. The Inquiry Officer recommended the current detainee policies be reviewed. The commander of our taskforce in the Middle East, Major General Mike Hindmarsh, has completed this review and is satisfied that all the recommendations made have been addressed.

Defence will also be releasing a redacted version of the inquiry report into these allegations on the Defence website. These two inquiries highlight the dangers and the difficulties that face our soldiers currently serving in Afghanistan. In conclusion, I would like to pay tribute to Lance Corporal Marks and the other soldiers in his team. Corporal Marks died leading his commando team in fierce combat.

One of his team was seriously wounded while trying to assist Corporal Marks and other wounded soldiers continue to fight despite suffering gunshot wounds. I am immensely proud of their efforts. I'll now take your questions.

QUESTION: Mark Dodd from The Australian. Was Corporal Marks the victim of a sniper and what was the calibre of the round that struck him?

DAVID HURLEY: Corporal Marks' outfit was involved in a planned operation, as I

describe, in a valley. The Taliban initiated the fire, very difficult to say whether this was a sniper or not. They initiated fire, small arms and rocket-propelled grenades.

QUESTION: Lieutenant General, Tim Lester from the Nine Network. How well did those against whom the allegations of mistreatment were levied know Marks. Were they - was Marks a friend of theirs or close to them and are you sure that there wasn't any anger displayed by Australian forces in the wake of a colleague's death in this case?

DAVID HURLEY: These are all members of the Special Operations Task Group but from different elements of it and I can't read their minds on occasion. We conduct all our operations in accordance with the law of conflict and our rules of engagement are very strictly adhered to.

QUESTION: But surely your inquiry would, in part - part of the purpose of your inquiry would be to satisfy your mind that there is no retribution involved.

DAVID HURLEY: Well, the Inquiry Officer found, from witness statements, interviewing the detainees, medical evidence and photographic evidence, that there was no abuse of the detainees.

QUESTION: Murray Klosky from the Ten Network. Is there any evidence that the Taliban which engaged the patrol had any advanced knowledge of the movement of that unit or was that just an opportunistic engagement on their part?

DAVID HURLEY: We had been operating in that area for a number of days so they would not have been surprised to know we were in the area.

QUESTION: Can you clarify that Jason Marks was not wearing a helmet at the time of his death?

DAVID HURLEY: Sorry where's that coming from? Up the back there, sorry. QUESTION: Could you just clarify that Jason Marks, was he or was he not wearing a helmet at the time?

DAVID HURLEY: At the time of the death he wasn't wearing a helmet though the Inquiry Officer found that wearing a helmet would not have saved him.

QUESTION: Why wasn't the helmet on?

DAVID HURLEY: Our Special Forces have been operating in the Oruzgan Province in that region for about three or four years now, they're well versed in the nature of the operations there and in deciding what equipment they should wear or carry on any particular occasion.

QUESTION: Lieutenant General, did the inquiry into Lance Corporal Jason Marks' death find any failings whatsoever either from the Lance Corporal or from the military more generally in the way they dealt with that incident, or was there simply nothing that the military could have done better on that day?

DAVID HURLEY: This is an inherently risky business we're at. I think you'd

appreciate that. They were conducting an operation which had been well planned, you try to mitigate as much risk as you can. They were in a contact and very unfortunately for Corporal Marks he was killed in that contact.

QUESTION: Nothing could have been done better?

DAVID HURLEY: Nothing could have been done better.

QUESTION: General, is it fairly standard procedure to strip detainees to check them for concealed weapons?

DAVID HURLEY: In this case what happens when the detainees come in, they're medically checked, so it's not necessarily a concealed weapons check. Those sort of checks would have been done earlier on. They're medically examined and photographed to ensure that we've got a record of the condition they entered the facility.

QUESTION: Greg Jennett from the ABC. Can you just explain why the complaints of mistreatment came through ISAF as well as the Afghan National Army. Why was it coming from these two different sources?

DAVID HURLEY: When the complaints were made from the Afghan network, it went up through their senior leadership, came across to ISAF and so they were aware of the incident and participated in the investigation or had their own investigation.

QUESTION: Are their findings contained - how did their findings correlate with your own investigation?

DAVID HURLEY: I haven't seen the results of their inquiry. I am releasing the results of our inquiry today.

QUESTION: Has their inquiry been completed?

DAVID HURLEY: I have not seen the results of that inquiry.

QUESTION: Sir, is the inquiry that you - the copy of the inquiry that you give to the Coroner the full inquiry or the redacted inquiry?

DAVID HURLEY: We give the Coroner the redacted version of the inquiry.

QUESTION: Sir, just on current matters we've seen some images today of the bridge operation by the RTF. Does this indicate a change in operating procedures that Australians will push out beyond Oruzgan Province more frequently from here on in?

DAVID HURLEY: The bridges on Highway 1 - and Highway 1 is a very important, strategically important highway for both the Afghan people and the coalition forces in Afghanistan. The bridges have been the target of the Taliban for a while. We were the most available and capable force at that time in the time space needed to repair those bridges. So it's not indicative of future trend. We've responded to a requirement on the day.

QUESTION: When can we expect to see Australian Army helicopters deployed to the theatre to evacuate our own wounded rather than rely on the US and NATO?

DAVID HURLEY: The casualty evacuation, medical evacuation processes provided in theatre are provided for all forces. That's a tried and tested medevac process, it's been in operation in Iraq and Afghanistan for the last four or five years. It's designed to get treatment to or casualties to treatment as soon as possible and we're satisfied with that system.

QUESTION: Do you think an Australian unit will do a - be more efficient? There's been some incidents in the past where we've had obviously complaints about the timeliness of the evacuations. Do you think it would be better if we had our own people doing it?

DAVID HURLEY: It's a tried and true system. It's been working there for four or five years, very successfully, in both Iraq and Afghanistan. We're satisfied with it.

QUESTION: In its latest report the UN Office of Drugs and Crime general rates security in Oruzgan Province as very poor, that on a par with Helmand and Kandahar, also noted that opium is on the increase there. Is this having implications at all for Australian service people?

DAVID HURLEY: Again, operations across the board in Afghanistan are inherently risky. In Oruzgan we've been making good headway but in all the things we do, we're very careful in our planning, ensuring all the enabling assets are positioned and in place, trying to reduce risk, but it is a risky business and unforseen events occur.

QUESTION: So, sir, is the UNODC wrong in its assessment of security in Oruzgan at the moment, or are you wrong?

DAVID HURLEY: I haven't made any comment about the UN's assessment. I am saying it's an inherently dangerous business and we do our best to mitigate risk.

QUESTION: We're asking you to make a comment, if you would, on the UN's assessment. Is it - is the UN's assessment of the poor state of security in the province over which the Australians have carriage of security, right or wrong?

DAVID HURLEY:? We do three things in our operations in Afghanistan, that's support the development of security in the region, assist in the development of governance in the region and assist in reconstruction. All those are progressing well in our area. It is a dangerous area and remains so and will remain so for a while.

QUESTION: [Indistinct question]

DAVID HURLEY: We continue a series of operations in Oruzgan which have been operating - which we've been running for about the last two years now that are not only specifically targeted against IEDs but against Taliban leadership and it's all part of that third point of being - addressing the security requirements in Afghanistan and our province in particular. So the targeting IED makers is very much part and parcel of what we do there.

QUESTION: A lot of recent engagements, in particular the French losing a large number of troops in one engagement, what's your assessment of how things are going over there? Is ISAF winning or is the Taliban?

DAVID HURLEY: We've passed our condolences onto the French after that recent incident. We're there to achieve three things. I'll go back to those points, that we are there to assist in the development of security, assist in the development of governance and assist in the development of reconstruction. I think we're making headway in all those areas but it's a very complicated and slow-moving process.

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