Australian special forces troops are under investigation for allegedly cutting off the hands of at least one dead insurgent in Afghanistan, a national broadcaster reported yesterday.
The hands were brought back to the Australian base in Tarin Kowt, Uruzgan Province, to be fingerprinted after a battle in which four insurgents were killed, Australian Broadcasting Corp (ABC) said.
The Australian Defense Force (ADF) confirmed that it is investigating “an incident of potential misconduct” during a combined operation of the Afghan National Security Forces and Australia’s Special Operations Task Group in Zabul Province in April, but did not provide details.
The combined Afghan-Australian operation had been targeting an insurgent commander responsible for an insurgent network operating in and around Uruzgan Province, the statement said.
“Following the mission, an incident of potential misconduct was raised through the ADF’s internal command chain,” the ADF said.
Australian troops are required to take fingerprints and eye scans of every insurgent they kill, if it is possible to do so. Troops are equipped to conduct these investigations in the field. The information is then compared to a growing national biometric database of insurgent suspects in an effort to identify them.
ABC did not report why the hands were not fingerprinted at the scene of the battle.
The report said that an investigator from the ADF Investigative Service — a branch of the military — told troops during a briefing that it did not matter how the fingerprints were taken, and that chopping off the hands of the dead and bringing them back to base was acceptable.
The mutilation or mistreatment of dead bodies can be a violation of the laws of war.
John Blaxland, a researcher at Australian National University’s Strategic and Defense Studies Center, said that if the allegations were true, the behavior was an aberration of the high standards the Australian military had maintained during more than a decade in Afghanistan.
Blaxland said it was possible that a “temporary exception” from procedures had been allowed in the case of “a high-value target.”
Defense analyst Allan Behm said such a “direction would have to be cleared at the very highest levels.”
He said the allegations amounted to a prima facie case of a breach of the rules of law.
Neil James, executive director of the Australian Defense Association, an influential security think tank, said the alleged actions might have been justified by the circumstances and that it should not be equated with the 2011 case of a group of US Marines urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban fighters.
“If it occurred, it would be unusual. It would not necessarily be illegal,” James told ABC.
Australia has 1,550 troops in Afghanistan and is the biggest contributing country outside NATO.
The mutilation of insurgent corpses by members of the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan has previously triggered complaints and unrest in the conflict-racked nation, although often news of incidents takes days to trigger protests.
Islamic custom requires that bodies be buried intact.
British troops were investigated in 2011 over accusations a soldier cut the fingers from a dead insurgent and kept them as trophies, while US paratroops belonging to the army’s 82nd Airborne Division were last year accused of posing for photos with the dismembered bodies of insurgent bombers.
Australian troops operated under strict rules of engagement “while ensuring that the actions of Australian forces are consistent with our obligations under Australian and international law,” the Australian military said.