Ben Roberts-Smith, recognized as Australia’s most highly decorated living soldier, has recently been unsuccessful in his defamation lawsuit against three newspapers that had accused him of war crimes during his service in Afghanistan.
The accused war crimes involved the killing of unarmed prisoners. As a first for Australian courts, this civil trial presented an opportunity to evaluate war crime allegations levied against Australian troops. Justice Anthony Besanko affirmed that four of the six murder accusations made against Roberts-Smith, all of which he had denied, were substantially true. Some of these included the killing of a handcuffed farmer and a captured Taliban fighter, and ordering the killing of two other individuals to initiate new soldiers.
However, two other murder allegations, reports of Roberts-Smith assaulting a woman he had an affair with, and a threat against a junior colleague were not proven by the newspaper. Nevertheless, the accusations stating that Roberts-Smith unlawfully assaulted captives and bullied his peers were found to be true.
Following the trial verdict, a Taliban spokesperson characterized the case as evidence of the numerous crimes committed by foreign forces in Afghanistan, expressing skepticism towards the international judicial system’s ability to address these crimes adequately.
Roberts-Smith, a veteran of the elite Special Air Service Regiment (SAS) and recipient of Australia’s highest military award, the Victoria Cross, has had his public reputation severely damaged since 2018. This was when The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, and The Canberra Times began to publish articles detailing his misconduct between 2009 and 2012.
The defamation trial, termed as “the trial of the century” by some, ran for 110 days and reportedly cost up to A$25m ($16.3m, £13.2m). It featured more than 40 witnesses, ranging from Afghan villagers to current and former SAS soldiers, each providing extensive insight into Roberts-Smith’s life and actions.
The trial also shed light on the opaque internal dynamics of Australia’s elite special forces, revealing the existence of a “code of silence” within the regiment regarding potential misconduct.
The news outlets celebrated the judgement as a validation of their investigative reporting. The Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organisation also lauded the role of investigative journalism in revealing truth and raising public awareness about what happened in the country.
Despite the verdict, media tycoon Kerry Stokes, who currently employs Roberts-Smith at Seven West Media, stated that the judgement did not match with the man he personally knows. The case follows a landmark report from three years ago that presented credible evidence of Australian forces unlawfully killing 39 civilians and prisoners in Afghanistan from 2007 to 2013.