One of Australia’s most decorated living war veterans has lost a defamation lawsuit against three newspapers which accused him of war crimes in Afghanistan.
Ben Roberts-Smith had launched legal proceedings against The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, and The Canberra Times over articles they published in 2018.
The papers ran articles accusing the 44-year-old former Australian SAS corporal of unacceptable use of force against unarmed Afghans.
Federal Court judge Anthony Besanko said on Thursday the newspapers had successfully established their reports were substantially true in relation to four of the six murder allegations – all denied by the former special forces corporal.
In one of the cases, the judge said Mr Roberts-Smith’s actions were “callous and inhumane”.
Mr Roberts-Smith had been seeking unspecified damages from the papers for portraying him as someone who “broke the moral and legal rules of military engagement” in Afghanistan where he served from 2006 to 2012.
He won several top Australian military honours, including the Victoria Cross, for his actions during six tours of Afghanistan before carving out a post-military career as an in-demand public speaker and media executive.
But according to the newspapers, he also played a part in the unlawful killings of six Afghans during his deployment.
The articles, citing other soldiers who said they were there, said Mr 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.
The papers also reported Mr Roberts-Smith had pressured a lower-ranking Australian soldier to execute an elderly, unarmed Afghan to “blood the rookie”.
Judge Besanko said the papers had proved these accounts 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 also proved that allegation was true.
Publication of the judge’s full reasons was delayed until Monday due to national security concerns.
The civil judgment is not a criminal finding of guilt.
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James Chessell, managing editor of publishing at the newspapers’ owner Nine Entertainment, described the verdict as “a vindication for the brave soldiers of the SAS who served their country with distinction and then had the courage to speak the truth about what happened”.
Mr Roberts-Smith, who was not in court for the judgment, claimed the opposition witnesses were fantasists and disgruntled failed soldiers who were jealous of his accolades.
He also put forward former soldiers as witnesses who supported his actions.
His lawyer Arthur Moses told reporters: “We will consider the lengthy judgment that his honour has delivered and look at issues relating to an appeal.”