As the Ben Roberts Smith defamation trial continues, it’s hard not to look away from evidence given in court, and reported widely in the media, about what allegedly happened in Afghanistan.
The latest development in the case, which is expected to have legal bills exceeding $100 million, a further three murder allegations have been levelled against Roberts Smith – one of Australia’s most recognised and awarded soldiers.
Atrocities in Afghanistan
In case you’re not familiar with the details, Roberts Smith is suing The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Canberra Times for defamation.
All three newspapers alleged that Roberts Smith was involved in at least six murders during his time in Afghanistan. Mr Roberts Smith says all of the killings were lawful and in the line of duty.
The newspapers are relying on the defence of truth.
The evidence provided in court has at times been detailed, and there are many similarities with the Brereton Report, compiled by Major General Paul Brereton who is both a New South Wales Supreme Court judge and a major general in the army reserve, which was released at the end of 2020.
The report was the result of a four-year long investigation which uncovered an alleged 39 murders of mainly civilians and unarmed captured Afghan troops, and the cruel treatment of at least two more locals by specialist SAS Australian soldiers.
It is important to note the reports were made by Australian soldiers who could not bring themselves to support the “disregard for human life and dignity” shown by their rogue colleagues, nor the “culture of mateship and cover-ups” which enabled some soldiers to torture and kill with impunity.
One of the reported incidents involved a soldier on his first deployment to Afghanistan being pressured by higher-ranking officers into executing an elderly, unarmed man as part of an initiation, or “blooding ritual”.
It was reported that on the same mission, an unarmed Afghan civilian with a prosthetic leg was targeted and callously hunted down by members of the SAS team. The man was allegedly then kicked off a cliff while handcuffed, causing severe injuries but not killing him. A senior soldier allegedly then directed others to “get him out of his misery.”
The man was allegedly executed and his plastic leg souvenired and taken back to SAS headquarters in Perth, to be used as a novelty beer drinking vessel.
More recently, footage emerged of an SAS soldier hunting down an unarmed Afghan civilian, standing over him while he is defenceless on the ground, asking his fellow officer “You want me to drop this cunt,” then executing him.
Broadcaster raided and whistleblower prosecuted
To take a step back, in 2017, the ABC aired the Afghan Files which detailed multiple incidents of special forces troops killing unarmed civilians including children.
It also raised significant concerns about war crimes and the culture within the armed forces.
The information provided to the ABC, which formed the basis of the story, was leaked to ABC journalists by former Australian Defence Force lawyer, David McBride.
After the programme went to air, David McBride was charged with multiple breaches of national security in relation to the leaked information, and if convicted, he faces up to 50 years locked in an Australian prison.
The journalists involved were raided by the Australian Federal Police and eventually the AFP decided not to press charges.
But the Australian Government continues to pursue a case against David McBride (at exorbitant cost to taxpayers) despite the subsequent Brereton Report as well as other information that exists in the public domain, and despite the fact that the Brereton Report recommended that whistleblowers who assisted the alleged war crime investigations be made immune to prosecution and be promoted, rather than persecuted.
McBride of course, is not the only whistleblower – a number of others have since come forward with similar information.
Australia’s Human Rights reputation continues to deteriorate
While the Roberts Smith defamation case is still before the courts, and Mr Roberts Smith maintains that he acted within the laws of war, much of the witness testimony has been widely reported on and will be difficult for politicians and defence force officials to ignore if they are serious about cleaning up the ADF’s culture as well as holding any personnel to account.
Since the release of the Brereton Report, the Australian Government has established a new Office of the Special Investigator to investigate criminal charges arising from the Brereton Report and an oversight committee to investigate broader cultural and organisational issues.
Experts have also noted that under the Geneva Convention Australia has a duty to investigate alleged crimes beyond the period of wartime.
And yet action is slow, and the Australian Federal Government seems ambivalent to the fact that its poor reputation for upholding Human Rights continues to deteriorate public confidence here at home, as well as discredit the country’s international reputation.
These are important considerations as we gear up to celebrate ANZAC Day.
Lest we not ever forget the brave Australians who have fought honourably for their country.
Lest we not also forget that some soldiers have been accused of raping, torturing and murdering innocent civillians in the line of duty, and that’s nothing for any of us to be proud of.