The Australian government has expressed “sorrow” after a former Afghan soldier convicted of murdering three Australian soldiers in Afghanistan was released from custody in Qatar.
Hekmatullah was convicted of murdering three Australian soldiers – Corporal Stjepan Milosevic, Private Robert Poate and Sapper James Martin – as 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, soon after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in August, and that he is presumed to have returned to Afghanistan.
Hekmatullah had been in Qatar since being transferred from Afghanistan in September last year. When contacted for comment, an Australian government spokesperson confirmed Hekmatullah’s release.
“The Australian government is aware that that Afghan army deserter Hekmatullah, who murdered three off-duty Australians, has been released from custody,” the spokesperson said in a statement on Monday.
“His whereabouts cannot be verified.”
It is understood Australian army representatives are in regular contact with the Milosevic, Martin and Poate families and had alerted them to this possibility.
The 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, after reports he could be released as a result of US-backed peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
On Monday the government spokesperson 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 made repeated representations over a long period advocating this position to relevant governments,” the spokesperson said.
“We share the sorrow of Australians at this outcome and again offer our condolences to the families and the loved ones of our three fallen soldiers.”
Hugh Jeffrey, a first assistant secretary at the defence department, told a Senate inquiry on Monday: “The Australian government became aware of Hekmatullah’s release from Qatar through highly sensitive intelligence which the government is not able to comment on directly.”
Jeffrey did not specify when the Australian government received that information, given the sensitivity of the matter.
Geoff Tooth, an assistant secretary at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and a former head of mission in Kabul, told the same inquiry Australia had made “around 180” diplomatic representations on the issue of Hekmatullah over the last couple of years, at all levels of government.
The Labor opposition said its thoughts were with the families of the victims. It called on the government to provide “a full explanation” about its knowledge of the matter.
“Mr Morrison has an obligation to the families of these three men, and all Australians, to explain what steps his government is taking with coalition partners to confirm his location and ensure he will be subject to international movement restrictions,” the Labor frontbenchers Penny Wong and Brendan O’Connor said in a statement.
The issue was raised during the first hearing of the Senate inquiry into Australia’s engagement in Afghanistan, which is also expected to look at the military strategy and the handling of this year’s withdrawal.
In written accounts that are set to be provided to the inquiry, Afghans who have applied for Australian humanitarian visas have said they are living in fear as the Taliban are “hunting us down like animals”.
The Senate’s foreign affairs, defence and trade references committee is investigating how the Australian government should respond to the latest developments in Afghanistan, after the fall of the country to Taliban in August.
Hekmatullah went on the run after the fatal attack on the Australian soldiers but was captured in Pakistan in February 2013 – about six months later – and then brought to trial in Afghanistan.
He was transferred from Afghanistan to Qatar on 10 September 2020, in a move government officials said at the time was part of “a compromise organised by the US government with the government of Qatar to enable the commencement of the Afghanistan peace negotiations”.
Officials told an estimates hearing 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 US and Afghanistan to ensure they understood the strength of feeling 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 of violence and direct talks resulting in a peace agreement and an end to the war” in Afghanistan.