Australian special forces soldiers allegedly committed up to 39 murders and 19 current or former soldiers will face criminal investigation, possible prosecution and the stripping of their medals after the findings of an exhaustive inquiry released by military chief Angus Campbell.
Australian Army soldiers from Special Operations Task Group prepare for a night-time operation in Oruzgan in 2008.Credit:ADF
The public summary of the inquiry, released on Thursday morning, based partly on evidence given by eyewitnesses interviewed under oath, also found that Australian soldiers summarily executed non-combatants and prisoners.
Justice Brereton wrote "when what the inquiry has found is taken collectively, the answer to the question, 'Is there substance to rumours of war crimes by elements of the Special Operations Task group' must sadly be, 'Yes, there is'."
The voluminous classified report, along with a publicly released summary, is based on more than 350 interviews with soldiers and officers from SAS and Commandos, Afghan villagers, special forces interpreters and support staff.
The report was scathing of patrol commanders of the Special Operations Task Group, where "criminal behaviour was conceived, committed, continued, and concealed".
A special forces soldier in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, in 2012.Credit:ADF
Justice Brereton, who was appointed by the Inspector-General of defence in 2016 to investigate pervasive rumours of war crimes in Afghanistan between 2003 and 2016, found commanders higher up the chain should bear a "moral command responsibility" for a culture that allowed the alleged crimes to take place.
But the inquiry found "the criminal behaviour of a few was commenced, committed, continued and concealed at the patrol commander level, that is, at corporal or sergeant level".
None of the incidents could be classified as disputable decisions made under pressure in the "heat of battle", it found.
The report recommended that ADF Chief Angus Campbell refer 36 matters to the Australian Federal Police for criminal investigation, which relate to 23 incidents and involve 19 current or former ADF personnel.
The Brereton report also savages the manner in which soldiers allegedly lied about suspect incidents in combat operation reports, including those about incidents in which Afghans were allegedly unlawfully executed.
The inquiry found credible information that some special forces soldiers were involved "in site exploitation pornography". They carried "throwdowns" – foreign weapons and equipment such as pistols, small hand-held radios and grenades to be placed with the bodies of enemies killed in action for the purpose of taking photos. This practice eventually was used for the purpose of concealing deliberate unlawful killings.
The Brereton report also found evidence that junior soldiers were required by their patrol commanders to shoot a prisoner to achieve their first kill, in a practice known as "blooding".
The full classified report will remain private, and the task of further criminal investigation and prosecution of war crimes passed to the Australian Federal Police and the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions. This process will be overseen by a special investigator, likely to be an ex-judge or senior barrister, as announced last week by Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
This is likely to lead to years of police investigations and, if soldiers are charged, lengthy trials in what looms as an unprecedented challenge for the AFP and prosecutors, who will need special resourcing and expertise as they attempt to mount the first successful war crimes prosecution in recent Australian history.
The decision to prioritise criminal investigation and prosecution over simply detailing allegations in a public report underpins the belief of the office of the Inspector-General that accountability and punishment for the most serious war crimes should be left to a jury in a criminal trial.
The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald have previously reported that one of the key focuses of the inquiry was war hero and Victoria Cross recipient Ben Roberts-Smith. However, in his report Justice Brereton has issued orders preventing the name of witnesses or those subject to orders being named.
If you are a current or former ADF member, or a relative, and need counselling or support, contact the Defence All-Hours Support Line on 1800 628 036 or Open Arms on 1800 011 046.
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