Wed. Aug 10th, 2022

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

Hekmatullah was convicted of murdering three Australian soldiers – Corporal Stjepan Milosevic, private Robert Poate and Sapper James Martin – when 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 shortly after Kabul’s fall to the Taliban in August and that he is believed to have returned to Afghanistan.

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

“The Australian Government is aware that Afghan Army Desert Hekmatullah, who murdered three official Australians, has been released from custody,” the spokesman said in a statement on Monday.

“His whereabouts cannot be verified.”

It is understood that Australian Army representatives are in regular contact with the Milosevic, Martin and Poate families and had warned them of this possibility.

Australian soldiers Sapper James Martin, Lance Corporal Stjepan Milosevic and private Robert were killed while playing cards at a patrol base in Afghanistan in August 2012.
Australian soldiers Sapper James Martin, Lance Corporal Stjepan Milosevic and private Robert were killed while playing cards at a patrol base in Afghanistan in August 2012. Photo: Australian Defense Forces

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, following reports that he could be released as a result of US-backed peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

On Monday, the government spokesman 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 came up with repeated representations over a long period of time in which we told this attitude to relevant governments,” the spokesman said.

“We share the grief of the Australians over this result and again give our condolences to the families and loved ones of our three fallen soldiers.”

On Monday, four government departments – including defense and home affairs – will be questioned at the first hearing of the Senate inquiry into Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan, including the military strategy and handling of this year’s withdrawal.

In written accounts to be sent for the investigation, Afghans who have applied for Australian humanitarian visas have said they live in fear as the Taliban “chase us like animals”.

The Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defense and Trade References is examining how the Australian Government should respond to the latest developments in Afghanistan following the country’s fall to the Taliban in August.

Hekmatullah fled after the fatal attack on Australian troops, but was captured in Pakistan in February 2013 – about six months later – and then put on trial in Afghanistan.

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

Officials told an estimate heard 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 United States and Afghanistan to ensure they understood the feeling of Strength 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 in violence and direct negotiations that resulted in a peace deal and an end to the war” in Afghanistan.

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