Australia’s Most Decorated Soldier Committed War Crimes, Judge Finds

Office of Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia via Wikimedia Commons
Office of Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia via Wikimedia Commons

Australia’s most decorated living soldier murdered four unarmed prisoners when he served in the military in Afghanistan, a federal court judge found on Thursday.

Ben Roberts-Smith lost his historic defamation case brought against three newspapers that had accused him of committing multiple war crimes. The civil trial in Sydney ended with Justice Anthony Besanko finding, on the balance of probabilities, that four accusations of murder made against Roberts-Smith were substantially true.

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They included one allegation that Roberts-Smith kicked a handcuffed farmer off a cliff in 2012. After the fall, which smashed out the victim’s teeth, Roberts-Smith allegedly ordered a subordinate to shoot the injured man dead.

Another alleged murder in 2009 involved Roberts-Smith ordering the death of an elderly man found hiding in a tunnel. In the same operation, Roberts-Smith allegedly used a machine gun to kill a young disabled man with a prosthetic leg—the leg was later kept as a souvenir by another soldier and was used by troops as a novelty vessel to drink beer.

The 44-year-old veteran, who left full-time military service in 2013, has not been criminally charged for any of the allegations against him. He was not present in court for the judgment on Thursday—he was not obligated to attend—with some local media outlets publishing pictures of him on a sun lounger in Bali, Indonesia.

“Today is a day of justice,” Nick McKenzie, one of the journalists vindicated by the trial, said outside court on Thursday, according to the Associated Press. “It’s a day of justice for those brave men of the [Special Air Service] who stood up and told the truth about who Ben Roberts-Smith is—a war criminal, a bully, and a liar.”

Roberts-Smith joined Australia’s elite SAS in 2003 and went on to win the country’s prestigious Medal of Gallantry three years later on his first tour of Afghanistan for his actions as a patrol scout and sniper. In 2011, he received the Victoria Cross—Australia’s highest military honor—for acting with a “total disregard for his own safety” in single-handedly storming an enemy machine gun position.

The award made him the most decorated living Australian soldier, but his reputation came into question in 2018. The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, and The Canberra Times began publishing articles alleging that he had committed war crimes, which also included ordering lower-ranking soldiers to kill civilians as a way of “blooding” the troops.

Roberts-Smith sued the newspapers for defamation, setting off a year-long multimillion-dollar trial that also covered allegations that he had bullied his colleagues and committed an act of domestic violence against a lover.

Justice Besanko found that the bullying allegation was substantially true, and while the newspapers failed to prove the domestic violence accusation, Roberts-Smith’s reputation could not have been further harmed after he had been found to have been a war criminal.

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