Australia’s defence chief Monday denied reports that bodies of the country’s soldiers killed in Afghanistan were mishandled during repatriation, or that the corpse of an Afghan insurgent was mistreated.
Australian Defence Force chief Lieutenant general David Hurley’s comments came after the Sydney Daily Telegraph said soldiers’ bodies were wrongly placed in coffin lids, with the main section of the casket set on top upside-down.
The paper also said whistleblowers had highlighted an incident in which an Afghan insurgent’s corpse was put in a taxi with its legs hanging out of the window, which had become known to troops as the “Weekend at Bernie’s” episode.
The reference is to a 1989 Hollywood comedy in which two men pretend their deceased boss is still alive.
“Defence photographic records show that on three occasions, once in 2008 and twice in 2011, the caskets were used incorrectly during the initial part of the return journey from Afghanistan,” Hurley told a Senate hearing.
“In two instances the orientation of the caskets was corrected when the remains were transferred to mortuary facilities in the Middle East.
“And in the third case the error was reverently corrected before departing Al Minhad airbase in the UAE.”
Hurley said inquiries had shown the bodies were “treated with the utmost respect and dignity”.
In 2006 defence personnel bungled the repatriation of the body of Private Jake Kovco, who was shot in the head using his own pistol in Baghdad, mistakenly transporting the remains of another man to Australia.
Hurley also denied the reported whistleblowers’ allegations that an Afghan man’s body was sent out of their Uruzgan base in a taxi – the “Weekend and Bernie’s” case.
“He was last seen going out the gate with his legs hanging out the taxi window,” one told the paper, which also claimed the body was never traced.
Hurley said he believed the allegation related to an Afghan insurgent who was wounded in an engagement with Australian forces in October 2010 and treated at a medical facility at Tarin Kot where he subsequently died.
Afghan staff at the Tarin Kot hospital arranged the transport of the man’s body to his home, and the vehicle used “may have also been used as a taxi”.
Hurley said while the handling of locals’ remains in Afghanistan might not accord with Australian norms, the case met international practice in the country at the time.
“Any reference to the death of an Afghan local national as ‘Weekend at Bernie’s’ is derogatory, ill-informed, and does not accurately reflect the facts,” he said.
Australia has some 1,550 soldiers in Afghanistan, mostly stationed in Uruzgan, with some 32 Australians killed since troops were first deployed there in late 2001.