A War Hero's Potential Fall Rivets Australia

Decorated soldier Ben Roberts-Smith sued newspapers over claims he killed civilians, unarmed captives
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted May 31, 2023 12:57 PM CDT
War Hero or War Criminal? Big Australian Case Nears End
Ben Roberts-Smith arrives at the Federal Court in Sydney, Wednesday, June 9, 2021.   (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

Ben Roberts-Smith of Australia is his nation's most decorated living war veteran, notes the Guardian. But three Australian newspapers printed allegations the 44-year-old is also a war criminal who unlawfully killed six Afghans who were either unarmed prisoners or civilians. Now, after a dramatic and months-long trial that has been big news in Australia, a judge is poised to rule on whether those newspapers defamed him. Coverage:

  • Roberts-Smith served in the vaunted Special Air Services regiment and received Australia's Victoria Cross upon finishing his final tour in 2012, per the BBC. Among other things, he was credited with single-handedly overpowering Taliban machine-gunners who were firing upon his platoon.
  • But in 2018, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age, and the Canberra Times ran stories by Nick McKenzie, Chris Masters, and David Wroef accusing him of grisly misconduct from 2009 to 2012. For instance, the stories alleged he kicked a handcuffed farmer off a cliff, which knocked out the man's teeth, and then fatally shot him. Another high-profile allegation is that he killed a captured fighter who had a prosthetic leg, and the leg was then used as a drinking vessel by troops.

  • Roberts-Smith adamantly denies any misconduct and says all of his killings were justified within the bounds of war. Jealous peers made up tales, his attorney maintains, and journalists "jumped on the rumors like salmon jumping on a hook." However, "not a single one of the murders we allege ... involved decisions that were made in the heat of battle (or) the 'fog of war,'" says the attorney for the newspapers.
  • The BBC notes that during the defamation trial, even more allegations of misconduct and unlawful killings emerged. A private investigator also testified that Roberts-Smith asked him to take the blame for threatening letters sent to former soldiers cooperating with investigators. The trial also delved into the former soldier's personal life, with a former mistress testifying that he punched her in the face.
  • So, yes, it's a defamation trial, but it amounts to Australia's "first war crimes trial," per Reuters. A legal expert explains: "Because the principle defense here is truth, what the trial has become is a de facto war crimes trial," says David Rolph of the University of Sydney law school. "The stakes are incredibly high."
(More Australia stories.)

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