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Taliban: Scott Morrison’s opposition to Afghan prisoner release has 'halted peace talks'

Hekmatullah, the Afghan soldier who killed three Australian troops. Source: Four Corners

Exclusive: Prime Minister Scott Morrison's opposition to the release of an Afghan soldier who killed three Australian soldiers "doesn't make sense" and has halted intra-Afghan peace talks, according to a Taliban spokesperson who spoke to SBS Pashto.

The Australian prime minister in August urged US President Donald Trump to help ensure a rogue Afghan soldier who killed three Australians remains behind bars.  

Hekmatullah, who murdered the officers in 2012, could be released from jail in Afghanistan under a prisoner swap brokered by the United States.  

The Afghan sergeant was charged over the deaths of Lance Corporal Stjepan Milosevic, Sapper James Martin and Private Robert Poate in Afghanistan.  

Other NATO countries raised similar concerns regarding the deal, including France.   

“Hekmatullah was responsible for murdering three Australians, and our position is that he should never be released,” Mr Morrison said on August 9. 

"We do not believe that his release adds to peace in this region. That is the position that we will continue to maintain, and we will maintain it strongly.” 

Hekmatullah looks set to be moved to Qatar ahead of peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, according to the ABC.

Lance Corporal Stjepan Milosevic and Private Robert Poate who were killed in Afghanistan in 2012.
Lance Corporal Stjepan Milosevic and Private Robert Poate who were killed in Afghanistan in 2012.
AAP

Responding to Mr Morrison’s comments, Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen told SBS Pashto that the Australian government’s stance against Hekmatullah's release has “halted the planned intra-Afghan peace talks”, referring to the ongoing peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

He said a list of prisoners involved in the prisoner swap was provided to the US two months before both parties signed a peace deal on February 29, 2020. 

"The list was shared with the US, and then the US shared it with the Afghan government and other foreigner governments, for the past six months there was no issue raised, now that we want to start intra-Afghan talks, they present the case as an obstacle, this doesn't make any sense.  

“If it is an issue of accountability, many hundreds and thousands of Afghans were killed because of them [Australia], they should first respond to this issue." 

US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad (2-L) and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar sign the US-Taliban deal.
US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad (2-L) and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar sign the US-Taliban deal.
AAP

‘We are not happy with the peace process’  

Since the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, more than 100,000 civilians and security forces have been killed.  

More than 2400 US soldiers and 43 Australian troops have died as a result of the conflict. 

To end the conflict, the US and NATO allies began negotiations with the Taliban, a move that would’ve been unthinkable when the conflict commenced.

Following years of negotiations, which intensified in 2018, the US and Taliban signed a conditional peace agreement in February, which would see the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan in 2021.

The deal drew mixed reactions within the country as the Afghan government was not included in the negotiations.

As part of the deal, the US agreed to release 5000 Taliban prisoners held by the Afghan government, including some convicted of killing NATO soldiers.

Official portrait of Sapper James Martin, who was killed on operations in Afghanistan on 29 August 2012.
Official portrait of Sapper James Martin, who was killed on operations in Afghanistan on 29 August 2012.
AAP

Mr Shaheen said the Taliban was “not happy with the peace process".  

“The deal was signed on February 29, and it was planned to start the intra-Afghan peace talks on March 10 this year. We have agreed to exchange 5000 Taliban with 1000 Afghan government prisoners, but yet all of the Taliban prisoners have not been released."  

Mr Shaheen said Australia should instead “look at their actions” in Afghanistan instead of focusing on the prisoner swap.

"We have the policy to have good relationships with the whole world and we want to build Afghanistan and to do so, we need to have good relations with all countries.  

"How many Afghans [has Australia] killed? If we would only think that Australia has invaded Afghanistan and killed Afghans. In that case, we could have caused destruction within Australia and we could have done it, not only in Australia but all the countries involved in the Afghanistan War. We didn't do that, we have solely focused on our country to fight against the invasion."

SBS News: 'A very happy day': Afghan leaders approve release of militant Taliban prisoners

Mr Shaheen claims that the Taliban has released 1005 Afghan government prisoners, while the Afghan government has released 4600 of the promised 5000 Taliban prisoners. 

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani signed a decree to release the remaining 400 prisoners agreed in the US-Taliban deal. 

Javid Faisal, a spokesperson from the National Security Council of Afghanistan told SBS Pashto that 80 of the 400 prisoners had already been released and it would continue the release prisoners once the Taliban completed the release of 1000 Afghan National Defence and security forces.   

He said the Afghan government was in bilateral talks with countries including Australia on the release of those Taliban members who have killed foreign troops.  

"Yes, bilateral, trilateral and multilateral. The talks are not aimed at pushing for a release but rather coordination to understand, and what the partners think," Mr Faisal said.

Taliban prisoners are released from Pul-e-Charkhi jail in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020.
Taliban prisoners are released from Pul-e-Charkhi jail in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020.
AAP

On the release of Hekmatullah, Mr Faisal said: "The government of Afghanistan is committed to its partnership and friendship with Australia, and there won’t be any release without the consent of the Australian government and the victim families." 

According to the UN report, in the first quarter of 2020, 533 civilians were killed in the Afghan conflict.

Anti-government elements, including the Taliban, were responsible for 282 deaths, while pro-government forces were responsible for 198 deaths.  

Mr Faisal said the reason that intra-Afghan peace talks were not taking place was due to the “increasing level of violence by the Taliban and the group’s lack of commitment to peace and the agreement they signed”. 

SBS Pashto has contacted the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade about the prisoner release deal but has not received a response.