The fallen soldiers are farewelled. Photo: Harrison SaragossiSoldiers at a remote Afghan patrol base where three Australian soldiers were murdered, had been asked “leading questions” during an official army probe into the killings, an inquest was told.
The uncommon civilian inquest into the 2012 combat deaths has also heard that, despite 32 diggers dying in Afghanistan, the Defence department had only held one high-level Commission of Inquiry into such fatalities.
Private Robert Poate, Lance Corporal Stjepan Milosevic and Sapper James Martin were gunned down by a rogue Afghan soldier at Patrol Base Wahab on August 28, 2012.
A Queensland coroner is inquiring into the deaths which had previously been investigated by a Defence process known as an Inquiry Officers Inquiry.
The families of the dead soldiers successfully lobbied for the inquest after being dissatisfied with the Defence Force’s inquiry.
First to give evidence on Tuesday was former chief legal officer for all Australian operations, Colonel Jim Waddell, who was quizzed by lawyers for the families and counsel assisting the coroner about the army’s official investigation process.
Col Waddell confirmed under questioning that of the 32 soldier deaths in Afghanistan, only one, which had involved a helicopter crash, had been subjected to a full Commission of Inquiry.
He said commission of inquiries into such deaths, were not often held because they were expensive costing up to $1.7 million and soldiers’ deaths in a warzone were “expected”.
Col Waddell said a commission of inquiry was only normally undertaken if there was a systemic issue, as had been the case in the helicopter crash.
The inquest was also told that the families of the three dead soldiers had been unhappy the subsequent official defence report into the deaths which was heavily redacted.
Barrister Peter Bodor QC, representing the family of Private Poate, described the level of redaction in the inquiry report released to the families as “totally unjustifiable”.
But Col Waddell disagreed, saying he “didn’t accept” the statement.
Mr Bodor also put to Col Waddell that the army was “very possessive of information that is not forced out of it” and that some of the redacted information was available in the public domain.
Col Waddell replied he “could see how people would have that view”.
Mr Bodor also asked Col Waddell about the investigation process undertaken during the inquiry at Patrol Base Wahab.
He queried whether Col Waddell had been made aware that many of the critical questions asked of soldiers at the base had been of a “leading nature”.
Col Waddell said such information had not been brought to his attention.
He also rejected Mr Bodor’s suggestion that a commission of inquiry should have occurred into the deaths given they occurred at a time when there was a heightened threat around relating to local religious customs and while soldiers were in a relaxed disposition.
He also rejected that the officers inquiry had been of a “low level” nature.
Col Waddell said that for a commission of inquiry to be go ahead, “we would need to have a reason for needing it to have some substantial value or .. learning lessons that have not already been learned”.
“We don’t believe the inquiry officer found systemic deficiencies,” he said.
The inquest continues.