For months, the families of three Australian soldiers murdered in an insider attack in Afghanistan have faced the distressing possibility that the man who killed their loved ones could walk free.
- Afghan National Army sergeant Hekmatullah killed three Australian soldiers in Afghanistan in 2012
- Hekmatullah could be released from jail under a prisoner exchange deal between the US Government and the Taliban
- The Australian Government wants Hekmatullah to remain in prison
Lance Corporal Stjepan “Rick” Milosevic, Private Robert Poate and Sapper James Martin all died during the attack at Patrol Base Wahab eight years ago.
Former Afghan National Army sergeant turned Taliban member Hekmatullah was convicted and sentenced to death.
But in the last few months, he has become a pawn in a complex geopolitical situation that has seen the US and the Taliban put pressure on the Afghan Government to free thousands of prisoners in the name of peace in Afghanistan.
Instead of being executed, Hekmatullah’s release could now be imminent.
“It just made my stomach turn. I just could not believe that the US would negotiate with terrorists in that way,” Kelly Walton, the partner of Lance Corporal Milosevic, told 7.30.
New information provided to 7.30 by the Afghan Government suggests Australian authorities could hold significant power in the negotiations.
“There won’t be any release without the consent of the Australian Government and the victims’ families,” a spokesperson for the Afghan office of the National Security Council said.
A spokesperson for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs maintained “the strong position it has consistently held in all its representations: that Hekmatullah should remain in prison”.
But with the Taliban insisting that all prisoners are released, there are no guarantees.
And while Hekmatullah remains behind bars for now, the families of his victims say that they have received little meaningful communication from the Australian Government during this deeply distressing process.
“It’s as though we’re persona non grata. We just don’t exist,” Hugh Poate, the father of Private Poate, said.
A Department of Defence spokesperson said that the Australian Army had been in touch with the families twice in the past month.
‘Back to square one’
In February this year, US President Donald Trump announced the US had signed a peace agreement with the Taliban after almost 19 years of conflict in Afghanistan.
The deal outlined a gradual withdrawal of US troops if the Taliban committed to peace in the region by cutting ties with Al-Qaeda and agreeing to a reduction in violence.
The deal also allowed for a prisoner swap: up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for 1,000 Afghan security force prisoners. The prisoner exchange was set to pave the way for intra-Afghan peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan Government.
“This, to me, just seems like Trump has said, ‘I made an election promise in 2016 to get the troops out. I want them out before the 2020 election’. Simple as that, with no regard for the consequences,” Ms Walton said.
The Afghan Government, who was not party to the agreement between the US and the Taliban, has already released more than 4,500 prisoners.
In recent days, under pressure from the US Government, prisoner releases have accelerated and intra-Afghan peace talks are due to begin in Doha soon.
For the time being, Hekmatullah is one of a small group of prisoners still behind bars. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has described the remaining prisoners as a “danger to the world”.
Taliban chief negotiator Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai said, “We are very serious about our prisoners,” and has asked that Australia not interfere in Afghanistan’s internal processes.
“We were expecting closure and suddenly it’s, oh no, we’re back to square one. That was the impact. It’s just hit us like a lead balloon,” Mr Poate said.
The attack came from inside
A dedicated husband, father and soldier, Lance Corporal Milosevic only joined the army at the age of 36.
“I remember him saying to me, ‘I want to do something that the girls can be proud of,'” Ms Walton said.
By the time he was 40, he was on his second tour of duty in the Middle East and part of a team that was training and mentoring Afghan National Army soldiers in the Uruzgan region.
August 29, 2012, was a stressful day. While on patrol in nearly 50-degree heat, Lance Corporal Milosevic and his colleagues found an explosive device.
When they returned to Patrol Base Wahab, they were exhausted and looking forward to cooling off and relaxing. In the evening, they joined a group of soldiers playing cards and a board game.
As the last hand of poker was being played, Hekmatullah, a young Afghan sergeant, fired 26 rounds into the group.
“The most disturbing part of it is the fact that it was so premeditated,” Ms Walton said.
Lance Corporal Milosevic was fatally wounded. Sapper Martin, 21, and Private Poate, 23, were also killed.
“It was premeditated coldblooded murder, purely and simply, and cowardly at that,” Mr Poate said.
It would be several months before Hekmatullah was captured and arrested in a multinational, multi-agency operation.
He pleaded guilty to his crimes and was convicted of murder, grievous bodily harm, treason and involvement and liaison with a terrorist organisation. He was convicted and sentenced to death in December 2013.
Speaking to Four Corners from Pul-e Charkhi prison in 2014, Hekmatullah said he would do it again. This is one of the reasons the families remain so opposed to his release.
‘The whole thing was for nothing’
In a statement to 7.30, a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson said: “The Government has spoken in the strongest terms to senior members of the Governments of Afghanistan, France, the UK and the US.
“It is possible to retain Hekmatullah in prison while still advocating for a just, durable and resilient peace agreement.”
Former Australian Army officer and non-resident fellow at the United States Studies Centre, James Brown, thinks the Government is in a good position with US President Donald Trump.
“There’s a good relationship, we’ve got capital in the bank. If we wanted to spend it to block the release of Hekmatullah, I think we could do that,” Mr Brown said.
“There’s no guarantee that the US will agree or the Afghans will agree but I think we’re pretty well placed with this administration to try.”
But the families of the murdered soldiers are preparing for the worst-case scenario by exploring other options, particularly the possibility of referring Hekmatullah’s case to the International Criminal Court.
The current situation in Afghanistan is fluid and it is a nervous wait. Adding to the anguish is the lack of detailed communication, says Ms Walton.
“We haven’t actually had any open dialogue,” Ms Walton said.
“They’ve basically just said, ‘We’re doing our best.’ But we don’t know that.”
For her, Hekmatullah’s release would undermine everything her partner sacrificed.
“It would just be so disappointing, incredibly disappointing, to think that Rick would have been killed for nothing,” she said.
“The big picture is that the whole thing was for nothing and that’s devastating.”