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Famed Australian soldier loses war crimes defamation case

Arthur Moses, barrister for former member of Australia's elite Special Air Service regiment Ben Roberts-Smith, leaves the Federal Court in Sydney. - AFP
Arthur Moses, barrister for former member of Australia's elite Special Air Service regiment Ben Roberts-Smith, leaves the Federal Court in Sydney. - AFP

SYDNEY: One of Australia's most decorated soldiers lost a landmark defamation case Thursday after a bruising trial filled with accusations of murder, domestic violence, witness intimidation and war crimes.

Ben Roberts-Smith, a former member of Australia's elite Special Air Service Regiment, sued three newspapers for 2018 reports that alleged he was involved in the murders of unarmed prisoners in Afghanistan.

Roberts-Smith denied the allegations and launched a multi-million-dollar defamation case in response.

But after two years of proceedings, Justice Anthony Beskano ruled that the papers had proven the bulk of their allegations to be "substantially true" and dismissed the case against them.

The defendants hailed the verdict as a major victory for media freedom in Australia, where defamation laws are often used to muzzle the press.

But journalist Nick McKenzie said it was also a victory for servicemen who testified against their former comrade and for Afghan victims.

"It's a day of justice for those brave men of the SAS who stood up and told the truth about who Ben Roberts-Smith is -- a war criminal, a bully and a liar.

"Australia should be proud of those men in the SAS, they are the majority in the SAS."

"Today is a day of some small justice for the Afghan victims of Ben Roberts-Smith," he added.

Before the trial, Perth-born Roberts-Smith had been Australia's most famous and distinguished living soldier.

He won the Victoria Cross -- Australia's highest military honour -- for "conspicuous gallantry" in Afghanistan while on the hunt for a senior Taliban commander.

He met Queen Elizabeth II and his image hung in the hallowed halls of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

But after painstaking reporting, The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Canberra Times alleged that lauded public persona masked a pattern of criminal and immoral behaviour.

The papers reported Roberts-Smith had kicked an unarmed Afghan civilian off a cliff and ordered subordinates to shoot him.

He was also said to have taken part in the machine-gunning of a man with a prosthetic leg, later bringing the leg back to Australia and using it as a drinking vessel with comrades.

The towering veteran was also accused of domestic violence against a woman in a Canberra hotel -- an allegation the justice said had not been proven.

The case was one of Australia's longest-running defamation trials and local media has estimated the legal costs to be about US$16 million, making it also one of the costliest.

Lawyers for the media defendants indicated they would now be seeking "indemnity costs against the applicant".

Roberts-Smith's defence was partially bankrolled by the boss of Seven West Media, a rival to the three newspapers. Roberts-Smith was photographed holidaying in Bali ahead of the ruling and did not attend court.

Australia deployed 39,000 troops to Afghanistan over two decades as part of US and Nato-led operations against the Taliban and other militant groups.

As veterans returned home, their actions have come into sharp legal focus.

A 2020 military investigation found special forces personnel "unlawfully killed" 39 Afghan civilians and prisoners, revealing allegations of summary executions, body count competitions and torture by Australian forces.

It was a watershed moment for Australia, which is more secretive than many democracies and whose government has silenced whistleblowers and prosecuted journalists involved in bringing wrongdoing to light.

Under growing pressure, the government appointed a special investigator to probe whether current and former soldiers should face criminal charges.

That process has already resulted in one man in his 40s being charged with "one count of War Crime-Murder", the first serving or former Australian Defence Force member to face such charges. - AFP

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