Here's how Australia’s most decorated soldier committed war crimes

A judge dismissed claims by the former Special Air Service (SAS) soldier and Victoria Cross recipient that he was falsely accused by the media on Thursday (June 1). Ben Roberts-Smith, Australia’s most decorated living war veteran, was found to have killed prisoners unlawfully and committed other war crimes in Afghanistan, the judge ruled.

According to a report by The Guardian, Justice Anthony Besanko made his decision while seated in Sydney, concluding that reports made in 2018 alleging a number of war crimes perpetrated by Roberts-Smith were “on the balance of probability” largely true.

The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, and The Canberra Times were the targets of the veteran’s defamation lawsuits after publishing pieces about his alleged war crimes and domestic violence. The judge determined that even while the allegations of domestic violence were unfounded and defamatory, they would not have further harmed the veteran’s character.

The verdict, which followed a protracted year-long defamation trial, is based on the civil standard of “balance of probabilities” rather than a criminal determination of guilt.

Ben Roberts-Smith made his first trip to Afghanistan in 2006 while serving with the SAS. He would later make a total of six deployments to the nation, with the most recent one occurring in 2012.

Two Afghan men, one of whom had a prosthetic limb, were jailed in April 2009 following an attack on the Whisky 108 facility. According to The Sydney Morning Herald, Roberts-Smith is accused of ordering a “rookie” soldier to shoot the other man while using a machine gun to kill the man with the prosthetic limb as part of a “blooding” ceremony. According to NPR, he apparently retained the prosthetic leg as a “novelty beer drinking vessel.”

At their facility in August 2012, three unarmed Australian soldiers were slain by Afghan National Army sergeant Hekmatullah. Roberts-Smith took part in a raid to find Hekmatullah in the village of Darwan in September. He is accused of kicking Ali Jan, an Afghan villager who was shackled and unarmed, off a tiny cliff while still in the village. The individual was shot dead after allegedly being dragged under a tree by two additional soldiers on his orders.

The Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, and The Canberra Times had claimed that Roberts-Smith had allegedly also forced a young soldier to execute an Afghan prisoner as part of an initiation ritual in October 2012. Newspapers were forced to retract this statement after the soldier who was said to have pulled the trigger declined to testify for fear of self-incrimination.

In Khas Oruzgan that same month, Roberts-Smith is accused of ordering an Afghan soldier to shoot a prisoner or ordering one of his subordinates to do it through the use of an interpreter. Additionally, he is suspected of having personally shot a young Afghan prisoner, boasting to a fellow soldier that it was “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” But the judge concluded that this accusation was unfounded.

Ben Roberts-Smith had a superb public reputation before to 2018, when the first headlines regarding his transgressions in Afghanistan surfaced. He was this generation’s most well-known and distinguished soldier in Australia.

Roberts-Smith received the Medal for Gallantry in 2006 for his actions while serving as an Afghan patrol scout and sniper.

He was awarded the Victoria Cross in 2011 for his bravery in a helicopter attack into Tizak, Kandahar province, in 2010. This is Australia’s highest military honour. With little regard for his own safety, Roberts-Smith killed three militants while under constant heavy machine gun fire.

In addition, as part of the 2014 Australia Day Honours, he received the Commendation for Distinguished Service. The Australian Father’s Day Council named Roberts-Smith the 2013 Father of the Year in recognition of his love and commitment to his family.

Questions concerning his military medals have been raised in the wake of the scathing court decision. According to Ben Saul, a professor of international law at the University of Sydney, Roberts-Smith should have his Victoria Cross medal taken away and the War Memorial should also remove its special display honouring him, subject to an appeal. Since 1908, no one has had their Victoria Cross taken away.

The historic ruling in the Roberts-Smith case follows a much bigger, and over time expanding, discussion about war crimes committed by Australian forces in Afghanistan.

After a four-year investigation, the Brereton Report was published in 2020 by the country’s military chief, Angus Campbell. It contained credible evidence of serious unlawful acts committed by Australian Defence Force personnel at various points between 2009 and 2013, including the alleged murder of 39 people in Afghanistan in violation of international law.

The devastating study suggested that Campbell bring 36 occurrences involving a total of 19 publicly unnamed people to the Australian Federal Police for criminal investigation. The excesses were attributed to a culture “focused on prestige, status, and power.”

The defamation verdict against Roberts-Smith, according to Australia Defence Association executive director Neil James, will “help clear the air in the public debate” regarding war crimes in Afghanistan.

Many people have been propagating the myth that since no one has been found guilty, we cannot determine whether war crimes have taken place, according to James.

It may take the downfall of Australia’s most decorated soldier before the nation can honestly address its history of war crimes and take steps to prevent similar excesses in the future.

Defence spokesperson Andrew Hastie told The Age, “This is terrible for our country, terrible for the SAS, and terrible for our national security.” Nobody wants to see this, but unless we address it, we can’t advance, said Hastie.

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