The UK defence secretary, Ben Wallace, has been ordered by a court to explain why the government withheld evidence suggesting SAS soldiers executed 33 civilians in in early 2011.
The minister has until autumn to explain why key emails and documents revealing official concern about the string of killings were not previously disclosed in a case relating to the deaths of four men from one family in a night raid.
An SAS sergeant-major described the episode as “the latest massacre!” in an email sent the following morning, after the mission report was filed. “I’ve heard a couple of rumours,” the junior officer added, according to documents first revealed by BBC Panorama and the Sunday Times.
Another document revealed that a secret review had been conducted of the suspicious killings and the string of related incidents, where the SAS killed fighting-age men, claiming they had picked up a gun or grenade, often while a search of premises was being carried out.
Covering the period from January to April 2011, the review noted that in three operations 23 people were killed and 10 guns recovered. “In my view there is enough here to convince me that we are getting some things wrong right now,” they wrote.
One SAS commander wrote back to their superiors in London to warn them there was “possibly a deliberate policy” and that the SAS troops had potentially strayed into “indefensible behaviour” that could amount to being “criminal”.
The cache emerged as part of a long-running court hearing brought by Saifullah Yar, whose father, two brothers and a cousin were killed during a raid on a compound in southern Afghanistan.
British government and army accused of covering up war crimes
Yar’s father was killed after being escorted back to his house by the SAS, who claimed he had grabbed a grenade; his cousin was also killed in the house after he allegedly picked up an assault rifle.
His two brothers were killed outside the compound. Despite allegations they were also armed with a grenade and an assault rifle, the family says no one in the household had such weapons.
UK government lawyers had previously argued that the was unaware of any complaints about the killings until the Yar family first brought a legal complaint in 2013 – a claim contradicted by the latest set of disclosures.
The case was investigated by military police from March 2014 and formed part of the expanded Operation Northmoor investigation into 675 alleged war crimes in Afghanistan. No charges have ever been brought in the case of the Yar family.
Tessa Gregory, a lawyer for Leigh Day, who acts for Yar, said her client wanted to discover what had happened over 9 years ago. “What has been revealed substantially adds to our client’s concern that there has been a cover up and it has left him more determined than ever to find out the truth of what happened to his loved ones.”
Last November, it emerged that the military police had interviewed 54 soldiers who had been involved in the operation that led to the Yar family killings. At that time government lawyers said: “None of those personnel could specifically remember the operation under question.”
The SNP said the documents revealed in court amounted to “allegations of war crimes” and the party’s defence spokesperson, Stewart McDonald, said they raised serious questions for Wallace as they appeared to suggest that “the SAS was employing a ‘deliberate policy’ to shoot dead unarmed men in such night raids”.
“It is now clear that when ministers have repeatedly told parliament that credible evidence doesn’t exist, that that credible evidence doesn’t just exist but it has been sitting in the Ministry of Defence the entire time,” the McDonald said.
The MoD said “this is not new evidence”, adding the case had already been investigated by police as part of Northmoor and reviewed on four separate occasions by an independent team.
“These documents were considered as part of the independent investigations, which concluded there was insufficient evidence to refer the case for prosecution,” a spokesperson said.
“The service police and the service prosecuting authority of course remain open to considering allegations should new evidence, intelligence or information come to light.”
Operation Northmoor was shut down in June by ministers without anybody being prosecuted; the veterans minister Johnny Mercer said: “I’ve said this government is going to war on lawfare, and I meant it.”
Ministers are planning to bring in a bill that would introduce a near amnesty against prosecution for veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and any another conflict abroad from more than five years earlier. The legislation is expected in the autumn.