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An inspector-general’s report, expected in the coming months, will likely recommend the prosecution of special forces soldiers over Afghan civilian killings. By Karen Middleton.

Defence braces for SAS murder charges

The Defence establishment is bracing for murder charges to be laid against former and possibly serving elite Australian soldiers over the activities of some members of the Special Air Service Regiment in Afghanistan.

In senior levels of government, Defence and corners of the wider military community, there is now an expectation that a four-year investigation by New South Wales Supreme Court Justice Paul Brereton for the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force (IGADF) will recommend that police investigate, and ultimately prosecute, a range of alleged incidents.

That has only firmed this week with the ABC’s Four Corners program depicting special forces soldiers allegedly acting outside the law. It included shocking video of an Australian special forces soldier shooting an apparently unarmed Afghan man who was lying on the ground in a wheatfield with his hands up.

In the 2012 clip, the soldier stands over the man, pointing his rifle at him and shouting repeatedly to a nearby senior colleague: “You want me to drop this cunt?”

Nobody is heard telling him to stop.

He then shoots the man several times, killing him instantly.

The incident was captured on another soldier’s helmet camera.

It is not clear whether this shooting is among the 55 separate incidents that Justice Brereton is investigating. Late on Thursday, Defence confirmed that the soldier seen in the video had been identified and suspended, and that the incident had been referred to the Australian Federal Police.

Brereton’s report is due to be handed to the chief of the Defence Force, General Angus Campbell, about midyear.

Former SAS officer and now federal Western Australian Liberal MP Andrew Hastie is among those demanding transparency.

“Like everyone else, I want to see the report handed down soon,” he told The Saturday Paper. “I want it to be made public … If people have had their reputations damaged over this, they must be cleared. If people have done the wrong thing, they need to be held accountable.”

Hastie said he found the video disturbing and “morally repugnant”. “This inquiry isn’t about decisions made in the heat of battle. It’s about allegations of unlawful killings of non-combatants and cruel treatment. If you’re going to wear the Australian flag on your shoulder, then you uphold our values – our traditions – and you protect the weak and the vulnerable.

“It was people blowing the whistle that led to this Afghanistan inquiry – people who believe in the rule of law, honour and accountability.”

While serving, Hastie reported concerns that soldiers had cut off the hand of a dead Afghan man, allegedly to allow biometric registration of his fingerprints.

The Australia Defence Association’s executive director, Neil James, is among those who expect various proceedings may follow the IGADF investigation.

“People are getting very prepared for a very tough report and they should be,” James said. “[This] is the Defence Force of a democracy. It’s a disciplined force; it’s not an armed rabble. If people have committed offences, they should be prosecuted, tried and, if found guilty, punished.”

In a statement, Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the video “shocking and alarming” and said the IGADF’s findings would be acted on “fully and promptly”.

The video shocked many in the defence community. Former Defence Force chief Admiral Chris Barrie was appalled at Australian soldiers no longer behaving as “a force for good”.

“I think there’s also another question of who turned a blind eye to it,” Barrie told The Saturday Paper. “They’re eventually all in the frame, aren’t they?”

Barrie argued governments and ADF leaders must take responsibility. “I think politicians and the leadership have failed a lot of these people,” he said. “Some special forces did over 10 deployments. I think that is unconscionable.”

He believes General Campbell’s handling of these SAS allegations will be “the defining issue” of his leadership.

Campbell, who served in the SAS, commissioned the IGADF inquiry when he was chief of army in 2015, after he and then special forces commander Major-General Jeff Sengelman received a defence consultant’s report on the special forces’ culture and heard serious allegations of wrongdoing.

In a sobering disclosure in his recent annual report, the IGADF revealed most of the 55 incidents being investigated involved the deaths of non-combatants and former combatants.

Dating from between 2005 and 2016, the incidents were “predominantly” allegations of “unlawful killings”, the IGADF report said, as well as some allegations of “cruel treatment”. Brereton may variously recommend referral for criminal investigation and prosecution, court martial or lesser Defence disciplinary proceedings.

Any recommendation relating to criminal law would require the AFP to mount its own independent investigation. The AFP declined to say whether it had received referrals from the IGADF.

Four Corners also featured an interview with former SAS soldier Braden Chapman, who alleged colleagues would regularly plant weapons or two-way radios on Afghans’ bodies, to manufacture evidence of insurgent activity and justify their deaths.

The Saturday Paper has spoken to former special forces soldiers and other army personnel who expressed frustration at having arrested suspected insurgents, only to have them released because they could not be held without certain forms of evidence. They say it does not excuse planting evidence, particularly on dead non-combatants, but may explain its occurrence more generally. They also say it certainly does not excuse the extrajudicial killing of unarmed people.

Like Chris Barrie, the Australian National University’s John Blaxland, a professor of international security and defence studies, believes Australia sent its special forces to Afghanistan too often and to do too much. He said strategic objectives were undefined.

“These people have done multiple operations in more secrecy than usual, with many of the same people going over and over and over again,” Blaxland said. “I think we all actually have some responsibility for what’s happened because we, as a nation … have not demanded more accountability, more transparency, more resolve, more commitment to do it properly, to do it in a more transparent way or not to do it.”

He said sending specialist “niche contributors” on “umpteen rotations” would naturally have “some corrosive effect”.

“In wanting to punish the people who perpetrated these acts, we need to put the indignation into proper context, a context in which we, the Australian people, were really happy to turn a blind eye and let them get on with it,” he said.

The IGADF has confirmed his forthcoming investigation report will also examine “the organisational, operational and cultural environment” that may have enabled such breaches. He said the “number and complexity of lines of inquiry” and the number, location, availability and welfare of witnesses and the need for “thoroughness and fairness” had all affected the time frame.

It is understood the first two years were mostly spent persuading potential witnesses to come forward. Their allegations, including those aired this week, are being noted in Afghanistan too.

“The Four Corners story has already been quoted in Afghan media and has been seized by Taliban apologists to attack foreign support for the Afghan government,” said ANU professor of diplomacy William Maley, who visits Afghanistan regularly. “Fortunately, few ordinary Afghans have any sympathy at all for the Taliban and this may limit the damage to Australia’s reputation.”

At home, the video and the IGADF findings will put pressure on the ADF to deal with the culture that has allowed such incidents to occur. “One of the structural problems that will need to be examined is the command accountability,” said Neil James. “How much did the special forces’ command structure know, when did they know it and if they didn’t know, why not?”

In a statement, the Afghan embassy called for a “complete, impartial and timely” investigation of the allegations. It said it had been assured the investigation was under way and it trusted the Australian judicial system. “If proven, the Embassy calls for the unconditional prosecution of the perpetrators,” the statement said.

Chris Barrie says these issues must be tackled or the legacy of every Australian contribution in that war is at risk. “In the culture, there’s always ‘you don’t tell on your mates’,” he says. “It is a cankerworm unless it’s properly dealt with … Imagine all the families with members who went to Afghanistan. The heroes in those families are now on trial for what they did in Afghanistan. The implications of that are very significant.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Justice Paul Brereton as the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force. It has been updated to reflect his correct title.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 21, 2020 as "Defence braces for SAS murder charges".

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Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.