One of Australia’s most decorated living soldiers on Thursday lost a defamation lawsuit against three newspapers which accused him of involvement in the murder of six Afghans during deployment to Afghanistan.
The newspapers successfully established that their reports that former SAS corporal Ben Roberts-Smith was involved in execution and murder in Afghanistan were true, said Federal Court judge Anthony Besanko in Sydney.
The case against Roberts-Smith, a Victoria Cross recipient, has put a spotlight on the secretive wartime conduct of Australia’s elite SAS troops.
The papers proved their allegations in relation to four of the murders they accused Roberts-Smith of, but “in light of my conclusions, each (defamation) proceeding must be dismissed,” Besanko said in a summary of his findings.
Publication of his full reasons was delayed until Monday due to national security concerns.
Former special forces corporal Roberts-Smith, 44, had sued the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age and the Canberra Times for portraying him as someone who “broke the moral and legal rules of military engagement” in Afghanistan where he served from 2006 to 2012.
Roberts-Smith won several top Australian military honors, 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 articles by the newspapers from 2018 suggested he went beyond the bounds of acceptable military engagement.
The articles, citing other soldiers who said they were there, said 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.
Roberts-Smith’s lawsuit called the media reports false and based on the claims of failed soldiers who were jealous of his accolades, and sought unspecified damages.
The newspapers sought to defend their reports by proving the claims were true, and presented other soldiers and former soldiers as witnesses in court who corroborated them.
The judgment comes at a time of heightened sensitivity around Australia’s military after a 2020 report said there was credible evidence members of the special forces killed dozens of unarmed prisoners in Afghanistan.
No soldiers were named in the redacted report but about two dozen current and former Australian soldiers were referred for potential criminal prosecution.
Judge Besanko said he would give reasons for his decision on Monday after the federal government applied to delay the proceedings to give government lawyers time to check for national security information being inadvertently divulged.