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Australian veteran loses defamation lawsuit over Afghan war crimes

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Former Australian soldier Ben Roberts-Smith is seen outside the Federal Court in Sydney, Australia, in 2021. (Photo by AP)

One of Australia's most decorated living war veteran, Ben Roberts-Smith, has lost a defamation lawsuit against three newspapers that accused him of committing war crimes and murdering unarmed Afghans in the war-ravaged country.

Back in 2018, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, and The Canberra Times published articles in 2018, alleging that Roberts-Smith, now 44, had murdered at least six unarmed Afghan civilians when he was a member of the Special Air Service Regiment (SAS) in Afghanistan.

The articles prompted Roberts-Smith to launch a legal case against the three newspapers, beginning a years-long legal battle in Australia.

The civil trial, which was the first time a court has assessed accusations of war crimes by Australian forces.

On Thursday and while he was delivering a summary of his findings, Federal Court judge Anthony Besanko confirmed that reports by the newspapers were substantially true in relation to four of the six murder allegations against Roberts-Smith, who denied them altogether.

The articles, citing eye-witness soldiers, had alleged that Roberts-Smith went beyond the bounds of acceptable military engagement, recounting brutal treatment of defenseless Afghan civilians by the ex-SAS corporal, who later won several top Australian military honors, including the Victoria Cross, for his actions during six missions in Afghanistan.

Roberts-Smith was accused by the articles of shooting dead an unarmed Afghan teenage spotter, kicking a handcuffed man off a cliff before ordering him to be shot dead, pressuring a lower-ranking Australian soldier to execute an elderly, unarmed Afghan.

The court ruled these accounts as true.

In another case, the newspapers 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," Besanko said, confirming that this allegation was also true.

The court ruling on Thursday represented a victory for media outlets seeking greater accountability for Australia's military, typically bound by confidentiality.

Due to national security concerns, the judge's full reasons will be published early news week.

Roberts-Smith, who was not in court for the judgment, strongly rejected the ruling, claiming that the opposition witnesses were fantasists and disgruntled failed soldiers who were jealous of his accolades.

Back in 2020, a report found credible evidence that members of SAS killed dozens of unarmed prisoners in the years-long Afghan war.

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