Ben Roberts-Smith, Australia’s most decorated soldier, has lost a defamation case against newspapers that covered his brutal actions while serving in Afghanistan. The court found that the journalists had written the truth and that Roberts-Smith had committed war crimes. “The verdict in this trial is a big moment for Australia, both legally and culturally,” historian Peter Stanley told the BBC.
For months, the ex-soldier, Special Forces Corporal, sat stoically in a Sydney courtroom as witnesses accused him of war crimes, intimidation, and assaulting his mistress. But it wasn’t Ben Roberts-Smith who was on trial.
The 44-year-old is suing three Australian newspapers over a series of articles in 2018 that he believes defamed him. He stated that the media had ruined his life by portraying him in publications as a soulless man who had broken the moral and legal rules of war, disgracing his country and uniform in the process. In response, journalists declared that they had told the truth and announced that they would prove their point.
A Sydney court ruled on Thursday that newspaper reports were true and that a soldier had committed war crimes in Afghanistan. Four of the six murder charges – which he denied – were judged to be true.
The court also found that journalists had failed to prove the reports that Roberts-Smith had assaulted his mistress, but assessed that the information about bullying in the military turned out to be true.
As noted by the BBC, this is the first time in history that a court has assessed allegations of war crimes committed by Australian forces. The soldier, however, was not charged with the leaked information. The 44-year-old did not appear at the hearing.
The British website described the trial, which lasted 110 days and cost around A$25 million, provided “remarkable and bizarre” evidence about every aspect of Roberts-Smith’s life. The result was a media storm that garnered national attention and made the soldier the public face for accusations of Australian war crimes in Afghanistan.
Hero or criminal?
Roberts-Smith last left Afghanistan, where he served, in 2012. He returned to his homeland as a hero. He was awarded Australia’s highest military decoration – the Victoria Cross for Australia – for single-handedly defeating the Taliban who attacked his platoon of the elite Special Air Service Regiment (SAS).
In 2013, the soldier was honored with the title of Australian Father of the Year, found employment in prominent management positions, and also gave speeches at prestigious events.
A scratch on his image appeared in 2018. Then journalists Nick McKenzie, Chris Masters and David Wroe began reporting in The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Canberra Times about Roberts-Smith’s activities during his military service.
Publications have made allegations that Roberts-Smith, during a mission in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2012, was involved in six cases of killing unarmed prisoners or civilians.
According to newspapers, among his victims was a handcuffed farmer whom he allegedly kicked off a 10-metre cliff. Then – according to journalists – the man was shot dead. Another victim was a captured Afghan teenager. A witness described that he was so terrified that he was “trembling like an aspen”. In court, he testified that Roberts-Smith later claimed to have shot the teenager in the head, and that he also boasted that it was “the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.”
The federal court’s testimony also records that Roberts-Smith shot the man with the prosthetic leg and that he took the prosthetic leg as a trophy. The Geneva Conventions, a series of international law treaties, prohibit the torture, killing or cruel treatment of prisoners and prisoners of war.
Nicholas Owens, the journalists’ attorney, stated that the reported murders did not involve decisions made during direct combat operations. Roberts-Smith stated that five of the killings occurred during the fight and the sixth did not happen at all.
The former SAS corporal’s legal team argued that the most serious allegations against Roberts-Smith were concocted by jealous colleagues – “liars” and “rumors” – to smear him. “He didn’t expect to be a target as a Victoria Cross recipient,” his lawyer, Arthur Moses, told the court.
In support of their claims, the journalists called forty witnesses, including Afghan villagers, a minister and many former or serving soldiers. As the media points out, this led to the disclosure of even more damaging allegations against Roberts-Smith. One of his close friends, who testified anonymously, said that there had been three alleged murders in Afghanistan in which Roberts-Smith was allegedly involved, which had not been reported in the newspapers.
There were also reports before the court that the soldier was mistreating other people. Roberts-Smith admitted punching another soldier in the face in front of others, but denied threatening another with a “bullet to the back of the head”.
In subsequent issues, there were, among other things, testimonies from a soldier in which he admitted that he had set fire to several laptops to erase data from them and claimed that he had buried classified information in a child’s lunchbox in his backyard.
Roberts-Smith’s ex-wife Emma was also a witness in court, who described the moment his mistress came to their home with a black eye, claiming she was pregnant with Roberts-Smith’s child. A woman whose identity is protected has told court in tears that a soldier punched her in a hotel room after she had embarrassed him at a party. Roberts-Smith denied this, asserting that the woman’s injuries resulted from a fall during the aforementioned event.
The “Culture of Secrecy” in the Army
However, the evidence presented at the trial also shed light on controversial details about the activities of the SAS, Australia’s military special operations force unit.
In November 2020, a landmark report revealed evidence that Australian forces unlawfully killed 39 civilians and prisoners in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2013. The report was the result of a four-year investigation by Judge Paul Brereton, commissioned by the inspector general of the Australian Ministry of Defence.
As stated by the commander of the Australian armed forces, General Angus John Campbell, all 39 killings were carried out premeditated, not in combat. The victims were prisoners of war, farmers and others detained by Australian soldiers. The report lists the names of 25 active and former Australian servicemen.
Special Operations Forces officers were to order low-ranking soldiers to kill as part of the frontline ritual, so that they could count their first fatalities. After the killing, the crime scene was prepared to make it look as if there had been a fight on the spot. According to the report, the actions of the soldiers were covered up for years due to a “culture of secrecy” within the army.
Nearly three years after the groundbreaking report, local media reported that more than 40 soldiers were being investigated for their role in alleged war crimes, but only one had been charged so far.
“The verdict in the Roberts-Smith libel trial is a huge moment for Australia, both legally and culturally,” Peter Stanley, former chief historian at the Australian War Memorial, told the BBC.
He pointed out that soldiers serving under the Australian banner almost certainly had previously committed war crimes, but so far none had been prosecuted. “The Ben Roberts-Smith case is just the precursor to a major series of war crimes investigations, charges, prosecutions and possible convictions that we may see over the next few years.” “That certainly made him a litmus test,” he concluded.
Main photo source: DAN HIMBRECHTS/EPA/PAP