- By Tiffanie Turnbull
- BBC News, Sydney
Ben Roberts-Smith, Australia’s most decorated living soldier, has lost a historic defamation lawsuit against three newspapers accusing him of war crimes in Afghanistan.
The outlet was sued for reports accusing him of killing unarmed prisoners.
The civil trial is the first time a court has reviewed allegations of war crimes by Australian forces.
A judge said four of the six murder charges – all denied by the soldier – were essentially true.
Judge Anthony Besanko found the newspapers had been unable to substantiate other reports that he had assaulted a woman with whom he had an affair, or that he had threatened to report a junior colleague if he We do not falsify field reports. However, additional allegations of bullying were proven true.
Mr Roberts-Smith, who left the self-defense force in 2013, has not been charged with any of the claims and no convictions have been found against him in criminal court, which has a higher burden of proof. . The 44-year-old was not present in court on Thursday.
An elite Special Forces Airborne Forces (SAS) soldier, Mr Roberts-Smith is Australia’s most famous living veteran.
He received the country’s highest military award – the Victoria Cross – in 2011 for single-handedly overpowering Taliban machine gunners attacking his platoon.
But Mr Roberts-Smith’s public image was tarnished in 2018 when The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Canberra Times began publishing articles about his misconduct between 2009 and 2012.
The elite soldier argued that five of the killings reported by the press had occurred legally in combat, and that the sixth did not happen at all.
Justice Besanko found the media had failed to substantiate the two charges, but upheld their reporting of the four murders.
- A handcuffed farmer that the soldier kicked off a cliff – a fall broke the man’s teeth, before he was later shot dead
- A captured Taliban fighter was shot at least 10 times in the back, before his prosthetic leg was taken as a trophy and later used as a drinking pitcher by the military.
- Two murders were ordered by Mr. Roberts-Smith to initiate or “suck” the recruits.
Outside of court, the outlet called the ruling a “vindication” of their report.
Investigative reporter Nick McKenzie – who wrote the stories with Chris Masters and David Wroe – summed it up in one word: “justice”.
“It’s justice day for the brave men of SAS who stood up and told the truth about who Ben Roberts-Smith is: a war criminal, a bully and a liar.”
“[And] today is the day of some little justice for the Afghan victims of Ben Roberts-Smith.”
The case, dubbed the “trial of the century” by some, lasted 110 days and is rumored to cost up to A$25 million ($16.3 million, £13.2 million).
More than 40 eyewitnesses – including Afghan villagers, a government minister and a host of current and former SAS soldiers – gave extraordinary and sometimes uncanny testimony to every aspect of his life. Robert Smith.
There was talk of a laptop burned in the backyard and classified information hidden in a child’s pink lunchbox, as well as damaging testimony from a private investigator, his ex-wife. Roberts-Smith and his ex-girlfriend.
But the case also exposed some of the inner workings of Australia’s top special forces. The trial of the soldiers said any potential misconduct was rarely reported due to the “rule of silence” within the regiment, while others defended their actions when necessary.
Defense Secretary Richard Marles declined to comment on the incident, as it is a civilian matter.
But war historian Peter Stanley told the BBC ahead of the ruling that the incident was a “trial” for allegations of Australian wrongdoing in Afghanistan.
“The Ben Roberts-Smith episode is just the premise for a series of investigations, charges, prosecutions and possibly war crimes that we will see over the next few years.”
A landmark 2020 report found credible evidence that Australian forces illegally killed 39 civilians and prisoners in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2013.