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War hero Ben Roberts-Smith could be stripped of his Victoria Cross

Australia’s best-known war hero Ben Roberts-Smith could be stripped of his Victoria Cross if he is convicted of committing war crimes in Afghanistan. 

A damning inquiry into Australian soldiers by the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force exposed a litany of alleged war crimes committed by the Australian Special Air Service in Afghanistan.

The report detailed 39 alleged executions, deceit and cover-ups carried out by 25 current and former SAS soldiers, the regiment Roberts-Smith was a member of. 

Roberts-Smith publicly confirmed he was under investigation by the IGADF inquiry and that he had separately been referred the Australian Federal Police in 2018. 

He has strenuously denied any wrongdoing and sued media outlets that published allegations about his service.

Roberts-Smith won the Victoria Cross, Australia's highest award for gallantry, in 2011 for his heroism during a 2010 helicopter assault in Afghanistan

Roberts-Smith won the Victoria Cross, Australia’s highest award for gallantry, in 2011 for his heroism during a 2010 helicopter assault in Afghanistan

He voluntarily attended an interview with the AFP earlier this year in relation to their investigation which was commenced in 2018. 

The report’s findings are only based on ‘credible information’, which is to a lesser standard than criminal or even civil trial evidence.

For prosecutions to occur, the incidents would need to be further investigated to meet a higher standard of evidence. 

Identities of those 25 soldiers, 19 of which were referred to the AFP for investigation that may or may not lead to prosecution, cannot be published.

Roberts-Smith won the Victoria Cross, Australia’s highest award for gallantry, in 2011 for his heroism during a 2010 helicopter assault in Afghanistan.

Allegations of war crimes have in recent years been levelled against him in the media by former comrades, which he vigourously denies.

Roberts-Smith is suing several media outlets for airing details of these allegations.  

A Victoria Cross has not been revoked since 1908, and revocations were banned between 1920 and 1991, when Australia’s honours were separated from Britain.

Up to 3,000 soldiers could lose of some of their medals, as the whole SAS is expected to be stripped of group citations earned in 2005-2016.

Some special forces soldiers are understood to be considering legal action against ADF chief Angus Campbell for making that announcement. 

Any soldiers convicted of committing war crimes could be stripped of all their medals. 

Roberts-Smith publicly confirmed he was under investigation by the IGADF inquiry and that he had separately been referred the Australian Federal Police in 2018. He has strenuously denied any wrongdoing

Roberts-Smith publicly confirmed he was under investigation by the IGADF inquiry and that he had separately been referred the Australian Federal Police in 2018. He has strenuously denied any wrongdoing 

Roberts-Smith's medals in order of precedence, with the Victoria Cross on the far left

Roberts-Smith’s medals in order of precedence, with the Victoria Cross on the far left

However, special forces soldiers accused of murdering innocent prisoners and civilians may be given immunity from prosecution if they testify against their senior commanders.

The heavily redacted 465-page report made public on Thursday includes a recommendation subordinates who ‘pulled the trigger’ on orders should be granted immunity if they speak out against their superiors.

However, any offer of immunity would likely draw a great deal of scrutiny, and be very controversial if given to any soldier who committed a murder.

Former Prime Minister John Howard said he still felt justified in sending Australian troops to war.

When asked if he regretted sending Australian troops to war in the Middle East in the wake of the September 11 attacks in 2001, Mr Howard said he had ‘no regrets’.

‘I do not regret that decision, it was the right decision,’ he told 9News.

‘But of course it needs to be utterly condemned and I can understand the revolution people feel. I feel it.’ 

Major General Paul Brereton’s investigation states prosecutors should pursue a ‘hierarchy of criminal responsibility’.

Australian special forces soldiers accused of murdering innocent civilians may be given a pass from prosecution if they testify against their senior commanders (file image of army soldiers in Afghanistan)

Australian special forces soldiers accused of murdering innocent civilians may be given a pass from prosecution if they testify against their senior commanders (file image of army soldiers in Afghanistan)

An Australian soldier is pictured opening fire on a man as he cowers in a field at the village of Deh Jawz-e Hasanza in Afghanistan

An Australian soldier is pictured opening fire on a man as he cowers in a field at the village of Deh Jawz-e Hasanza in Afghanistan

He recommends in order to secure testimony during potential war crimes trials, newer recruits who were ordered to kill in ‘blooding’ rituals should remain free from prosecution.

The report found evidence junior soldiers were required by their patrol commanders to shoot a prisoner in a practice known as ‘blooding’ to achieve their first kill.

‘Typically, the patrol commander would take a person under control and the junior member… would then be directed to kill the person under control,’ the report said.

In light of what has been labelled the ‘most shameful episode in Australia’s military history’, Chief of the Defence Force Lieutenant General Angus Campbell will disband the SAS second squadron as has flagged that up to 3000 diggers could be stripped of their medals.

Defence Minister Linda Reynolds on Friday said the disturbing allegations of ‘absolutely clear-cut murder and war crimes’ made her feel ‘physically ill’.

But as pressure has mounted on Australia Defence force personnel, new scrutiny has also emerged on senior military figures and politicians who failed to recognise the potential red flags during the long deployment. 

Australian Defence Force chief Angus Campbell (pictured) apologised for the unlawful killings of prisoners, farmers and other civilians

Australian Defence Force chief Angus Campbell (pictured) apologised for the unlawful killings of prisoners, farmers and other civilians

The findings point to a culture of violence, mistreatment of war prisoners and secrecy

The findings point to a culture of violence, mistreatment of war prisoners and secrecy

Key findings from the report: 

Special forces were allegedly responsible for 39 unlawful killings, most were prisoners, and were deliberately covered up. 

Thirty-nine Afghans were allegedly murdered in 23 incidents, either by special forces or at the instruction of special forces. 

None of the alleged killings took place in the heat of battle. 

All the alleged killings occurred in circumstances which, if accepted by a jury, would constitute the war crime of murder.

The report’s findings are only based on ‘credible information’, which is to a lesser standard than criminal or even civil trial evidence.

For prosecutions to occur, the incidents would need to be further investigated to meet a higher standard of evidence. 

There have been 25 alleged perpetrators identified either as principals or accessories. Some are still serving in the ADF. 

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Major General Paul Brereton's investigation took four and a half years to scrutinise the conduct of special forces soldiers between 2005 and 2016 (pictured: special force search a village at Musazai in the Uruzgan Province in Afghanistan)

Major General Paul Brereton’s investigation took four and a half years to scrutinise the conduct of special forces soldiers between 2005 and 2016 (pictured: special force search a village at Musazai in the Uruzgan Province in Afghanistan)

Since 2016, the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force has examined allegations of war crimes by Australian special forces in Afghanistan. 

Earlier this year ABC’s Four Corner’s program aired footage an SAS operative shooting dead an Afghan man who was unarmed and clutching prayer beads, in what another soldier called a ‘straight-up execution’.

Filmed from from a dog handler’s helmet camera in the village of Deh Jawz-e Hasanzai, the footage shows the soldier aiming his assault rifle from just a few meters away.

DISTURBING DETAILS ALLEGED IN REPORT: 

Blooding: There was evidence junior soldiers were required by their patrol commanders to shoot a prisoner in a practice known as ‘blooding’ to achieve their first kill.

Throwdowns: Credible evidence suggests some soldiers carried ‘throw downs’, where they left weapons and military equipment on a victim to make it appear the person killed was a legitimate target.

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The video was filmed in May 2012 after a Australian Army German Shepherd tracked an Afghan man to a wheat field.

An Australian soldier can be heard asking if ‘you want me to drop this c**t’ before opening fire on the man. 

While a military investigation previously found the shooting was in self-defence, the footage caused widespread outrage.

The incident was one of the first accounts alluding to special forces brutality.

Mr Campbell outlined on Thursday how the ‘self-centred warrior culture’ had led to ‘cutting corners, ignoring and bending rules’. 

‘What also emerged was a toxic, competitiveness between the Special Air Service Regiment end of the second commando regiment,’ he said.

Elite soldiers are accused of engaging in body count competitions and torturing civilians, as well as allegations of drug and alcohol abuse.

The report was compiled after interviews with 423 witnesses and the analysis of more than 20,000 documents and more than 25,000 images.

It covered the period from 2005 to 2016, but almost all of the incidents uncovered occurred between 2009 and 2013.

An report by the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence released on Thursday found evidence of 39 unlawful killings by special forces soldiers in Afghanistan, mostly by the SAS. (Stock image). It is not suggested any of the persons shown are in any way involved in any war crimes

An report by the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence released on Thursday found evidence of 39 unlawful killings by special forces soldiers in Afghanistan, mostly by the SAS. (Stock image). It is not suggested any of the persons shown are in any way involved in any war crimes

Justice Paul Brereton recommended 36 matters involving 23 incidents and 19 individuals be referred to the Australian Federal Police for criminal investigation. (Stock image). It is not suggested any of the persons shown are in any way involved in any war crimes

Justice Paul Brereton recommended 36 matters involving 23 incidents and 19 individuals be referred to the Australian Federal Police for criminal investigation. (Stock image). It is not suggested any of the persons shown are in any way involved in any war crimes

‘None of these are incidents of disputable decisions made under pressure in the heat of battle,’ the report said.

‘The cases in which it has been found that there is credible information of a war crime are ones in which it was or should have been plain that the person killed was a non-combatant.’

Dozens more allegations investigated could not be substantiated.

The alleged crimes: A timeline

2006

* First recorded alleged murder of wounded Afghan prisoner

2009

* Alleged murders of Afghan locals by ADF members with complicity of patrol commander

2010

* Alleged assault and cruel treatment of Afghan prisoner

* Alleged murders of Afghan prisoners with complicity of patrol commander and deletion of evidence to conceal killings

2012

* Various instances of alleged civilian murders by Australian soldiers

* Several alleged murders of prisoners and use of ‘throwdowns’ to conceal killings

* Alleged murders of Afghan locals surrendering to Australian troops

* Alleged assault and cruel treatment of Afghan prisoner

* Alleged murders of Afghan combatants separated from their weapons

2013

* Alleged murder of civilians

* Alleged murder of prisoners

2016

* Inspector-General of ADF asked to investigate rumours of misconduct and war crimes by Australian troops in Afghanistan

* Justice Paul Brereton and his team interviewed more than 400 witnesses and examined tens of thousands of documents during four-year review

2020

* Justice Brereton finalises inquiry

* Chief of Defence Angus Campbell published highly-redacted version of final report

* Credible evidence 25 current and former ADF personnel have committed war crimes

* 19 allegations referred to Australian Federal Police for possible prosecution

* 39 Afghans believed to have been murdered by Australian troops between 2006 and 2016 

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