A former SAS soldier running as the Liberal candidate in a key federal byelection says the Defence Force has cleared him of wrongdoing in its investigation into soldiers under his command who chopped the hands off dead Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.
Andrew Hastie, 32, who resigned this week as a captain in the Special Air Services to run in the Canning byelection, told the Western Australian Liberal Council on Saturday that he had left with a "clean slate".
In a swipe at the Defence Force, Mr Hastie said the investigation, which has been running for more than two years, should be finalised quickly.
Fairfax Media reported on Saturday that one or more soldiers being investigated by Defence for removing three Taliban fighters' hands in 2013 were under Mr Hastie's command.
The ongoing investigation had exonerated all but one soldier in his former troop.
Mr Hastie said that he was flying overhead in a helicopter when the incident took place, and promptly reported it up the chain of command when he became aware of it.
"I can say with great confidence that those soldiers involved directly with the incident were acting in what they believed to be the appropriate process laid out by Defence."
The hands of three Taliban fighters who had been killed in combat by the SAS soldiers were believed to have been removed for the purposes of identifying them by fingerprinting. It is unclear whether this breached the rules of war, which forbid despoiling or mutilating corpses.
"It is critical when you fight the Taliban that you gather evidence and do what you can to investigate the … identification of your enemy," Mr Hastie said.
He also defended the soldier still under investigation, who he described as "honourable", and said that the Defence investigation should now be completed "fully and quickly".
"This issue has cast a shadow for almost two and a half years over this man's life. I believe the Defence Force has a duty of care to finalise its investigation more quickly," Mr Hastie said.
Executive director of the Australian Defence Association, Neil James, agreed: "It's disgraceful the length of time it's taken.
"No one I know, who was aware of either the circumstances or international law, doesn't think they won't be exonerated. The principle of military necessity says in extreme circumstances that if there is no alternative you have to do things like this."
Mr James said that troops had previously received legal advice that this came within conduct that was acceptable, if necessary, to collect biometric information to assist Afghan prosecutions.
A Department of Defence statement said the investigation continued into "potential misconduct" during a combined Afghan-Australian operation in Zabul province in 2013.
"These are serious allegations and it is important to conduct a full and thorough investigation. As this matter is under investigation, it would be inappropriate, and potentially prejudicial to the investigation, to comment further at this time."
Earlier, Prime Minister Tony Abbott and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop vigorously defended Mr Hastie, without mentioning Fairfax Media's report.
Mr Abbott said that he was "so proud" Mr Hastie was the Liberal candidate for Canning, saying that the SAS was Western Australia's greatest institution.
The incident did not amount to a war crime because the conduct was out of military necessity.
"He has fought for our country in the field and he will fight for our country in the Parliament. Thank you Andrew for making yourself available for this important form of national service," Mr Abbott said.
Outside the conference, Mr Abbott said he was aware of the incident before endorsing Mr Hastie as the candidate for Canning: "I was aware that there was no blemish, no stain on the conduct of this exemplary officer."
Ms Bishop said Mr Hastie was "an outstanding Australian. He is a young man who is prepared to stand up and fight for his country. To fight for our values and our way of life."
She told Mr Hastie and his family at the Perth conference that they had the federal Liberal team's support.
"We want you in Parliament," Ms Bishop said. "You are an outstanding Australian who deserves to be elected in the seat of Canning and we will do whatever we can to ensure that our Parliament, our country, has the benefit of your skill, leadership and expertise."
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten would not comment when asked about Mr Hastie, saying this was a matter for the Prime Minister: "I'm certainly not going to start denigrating the Liberal candidate."
Federal director of the Liberal Party, Brian Loughnane, said on Twitter that Mr Hastie "has served our country in an exemplary way and will be a strong voice for Canning. We are honoured he is standing."
With David Wroe, Andrew Darby