Australia’s most decorated living soldier has lost a defamation case against newspapers that accused him of war crimes in Afghanistan.
Victoria Cross recipient Ben Roberts-Smith sued the papers over articles claiming he killed unarmed prisoners while in the Australian special forces.
A judge in the civil case said that four of the six murder allegations, which were all denied by Mr Roberts-Smith, were substantially true.
Mr Roberts-Smith has not been charged over any of the claims and no findings have been made against him in a criminal court, where there is a higher burden of proof.
Who is Ben Roberts-Smith?
Mr Roberts-Smith was seen as a national hero after winning several top military honours, including the Victoria Cross, for his actions during six tours of Afghanistan from 2006 to 2012.
He later carved out a post-military career as an in-demand public speaker and media executive. His portrait hangs in the Australian War Memorial.
But articles by the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age and the Canberra Times since 2018 suggested he went beyond the bounds of acceptable military engagement, including descriptions of brutal treatment of defenceless Afghan civilians.
The articles, citing other soldiers who said they were there, said Roberts-Smith had shot dead an unarmed Afghan teenage spotter, and kicked a handcuffed man off a cliff before ordering him to be shot dead.
Roberts-Smith sued the papers for portraying him as someone who “broke the moral and legal rules of military engagement”. He called the reports false and based on claims of failed soldiers who were jealous of his accolades, and sought unspecified damages.
What did the judge find?
Justice Anthony Besanko ruled that the veteran committed a slew of war crimes while in Afghanistan including the unlawful killings of unarmed prisoners.
The newspapers had sought to defend their reports by proving the claims were true, and presented other soldiers and former soldiers as witnesses in court who corroborated them.
The strategy largely worked. The papers had reported that Roberts-Smith pressured a lower-ranking Australian soldier to execute an elderly, unarmed Afghan to “blood the rookie”, said Judge Besanko, adding they proved that account true.
In another case, the papers reported that Roberts-Smith murdered an Afghan man who had a prosthetic leg and was then “so callous and inhumane that he took the prosthetic leg back to Australia and encouraged his soldiers to use it as a novelty beer drinking vessel”, the judge said. He said the papers proved that allegation was also true.
James Chessell, managing editor of publishing at the newspapers’ owner, Nine Entertainment Co Ltd, said the judge’s decision was “vindication for the many people in our newsrooms and our organisation who supported this really important public interest journalism”.
Mr Roberts-Smith’s lawyer Arthur Moses told reporters that “we will consider the lengthy judgment that his honour has delivered and look at issues relating to an appeal”. Mr Roberts-Smith was not present in court.