Australian army whistleblower sentenced for exposing alleged war crimes in Afghanistan

CANBERRA, Australia — An Australian judge sentenced a former army lawyer to five years and eight months in prison Tuesday for leaking classified information to the media that alleged Australian war crimes in Afghanistan.

David McBride, 60, pleaded guilty to charges of theft and sharing secret documents with journalists. He faced a potential life sentence before receiving his term in Canberra’s court.

Justice David Mossop ruled that McBride must serve at least 27 months before he is eligible for parole.

Rights advocates have criticized the sentencing, pointing to the need for better whistleblower protections in Australia, especially since the alleged war criminals McBride helped expose have not been convicted.

Mark Davis, McBride’s attorney, announced plans to appeal the sentence’s severity.

The leaked documents were the basis for a 2017 Australian Broadcasting Corp. seven-part series detailing crimes, including the killing of unarmed Afghan men and children by soldiers from the Australian Special Air Service Regiment in 2013.

A 2019 police raid on ABC’s Sydney headquarters sought evidence related to the leak, although no charges were brought against the reporters involved in the investigation.

During sentencing, Mossop stated he rejected McBride’s claim that he acted in the public interest, expecting legal vindication.

Mossop dismissed McBride’s concerns about criminal activities at high levels of the Australian Defence Force, stating they “did not reflect reality.”

A 2020 military report confirmed Australian troops unlawfully killed 39 Afghan prisoners, farmers, and civilians, recommending 19 current and former soldiers for criminal investigation.

The Office of the Special Investigator, established in 2021, is working with police to build cases against elite SAS and Commando Regiments troops who served in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2016.

Last year, former SAS trooper Oliver Schulz was charged with a war crime, accused of fatally shooting a noncombatant in Uruzgan province in 2012.

Also last year, a civil court found that Australia’s most decorated living war veteran, Ben Roberts-Smith, likely unlawfully killed four Afghans, though he has not faced criminal charges.

Daniela Gavshon, Human Rights Watch’s director in Australia, criticized McBride’s sentencing, arguing it underscores the inadequacy of Australia’s whistleblower laws and their lack of public interest exemptions.

“The conviction of David McBride, rather than the accused soldiers, stains Australia’s reputation,” Gavshon said. “His imprisonment will deter others from striving for transparency and accountability, essential pillars of democracy.