Australia to prosecute troops for Afghan war crimes

CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA (AP) — Australia yesterday announced a new investigative agency to build criminal cases against Australian special forces suspected of committing war crimes in Afghanistan.

The Office of the Special Investigator is to be formed after a four-year investigation into allegations and rumours surrounding behaviour of some soldiers in Special Air Service (SAS) and Commando Regiments in Afghanistan from 2005 and 2016.

Benjamin Roberts-Smith, Australia’s most highly decorated member of the armed services when he left the SAS in 2013, has been accused of by former colleagues of unlawful treatment of prisoners including illegally killing prisoners. The former corporal, who was awarded the Victoria Cross and the Medal for Gallantry for his service in Afghanistan, has denied any misconduct.

Defence Force Chief General Angus Campbell will make public a redacted report on the four-year investigation next week.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the new agency, headed by a retired judge or senior criminal lawyer, was needed because the workload would “seriously overwhelm” existing police resources.

File photo shows a policeman keeping watch outside an outpost set up against Taleban fighters at Aziz Abad village in Maiwand district of Kandahar province, Afghanistan. PHOTO: AFP

“This report will be difficult news and all of our partners must be assured and those around the world who rightly hold the Australian Defence Forces in high regard,” Morrison told reporters.

“In Australia, we deal with this stuff and we deal with it honestly, but in accordance through the rule of law and by following the justice practices and principles that makes Australia what it is,” he added.

Two Australian Broadcasting Corp journalists until recently faced potential prison sentences for using leaked classified defence documents as a basis for a 2017 report that detailed allegations of Australian soldiers killing unarmed men and children.

Police raided ABC Sydney headquarters with search warrants last year but prosecutors decided that charging the journalists would not be in the public interest.

Prosecuting alleged Australian war criminals is expected to take years. “These are incredibly complex events involving actions and conduct in another country, in a war,” Morrison said.

“This is not a simple matter… and so it will take as long as it needs to take to ensure we deal with our dual objectives of addressing the justice that is necessary in accordance with our laws and systems but also ensuring the integrity of our defence forces on which we all rely,” he added.

Chief Executive of the Australian Defence Association think tank Neil James said the Australian military wanted solders to have their day in court to end a “rumour mill”.