1 June 2023
Joint Press Release: Truth triumphs in Ben Roberts-Smith war crimes defamation verdict
Today, the Federal Court of Australia delivered its judgment in the defamation case brought by former SAS corporal Ben Roberts-Smith against The Age, Sydney Morning Herald, and The Canberra Times. Justice Anthony Besanko decided in favour of the newspapers, finding that the newspapers had proven several of the key allegations of war crimes, including that Roberts-Smith was involved in the killing of multiple unarmed Afghan civilians.
This case relates to civil proceedings brought by Ben Roberts-Smith in August 2018 and is decided on a lower standard of proof than a criminal trial. Roberts-Smith was contesting a series of reports by the newspapers alleging his involvement in several war crimes while deployed to Afghanistan. He was also accused of domestic violence and bullying a fellow soldier.
Roberts-Smith is the subject of ongoing criminal investigations by the Australian Federal Police and the Office of the Special Investigator; to date he has not been charged with any crime.
The Federal Court heard evidence from 42 witnesses, including three witnesses from Afghanistan who gave testimony via video link from Kabul in July 2021 after traveling from Uruzgan province.
Today’s verdict is a vindication for public interest investigative journalism, which helped bring to light dozens of allegations of war crimes by members of Australian special forces in Afghanistan.
Together with whistle-blowers, survivors and human rights defenders from Afghanistan, investigative journalists have helped set in motion several processes to reckon with Australia’s legacy of military engagement in Afghanistan, ranging from criminal investigations to reform of military education and training on the laws of armed conflict.
In a conflict marked by near-total impunity for human rights violations, these processes – which will continue for many years to come – represent an important opportunity to uphold Australia’s commitment to international humanitarian law and provide some measure of justice to victims and affected communities.
Fiona Nelson, Director of Legal Advocacy at the Australian Centre for International Justice, said:
“The road to accountability, truth and justice is a long one. This case is an important reminder
that we need courageous public interest journalism to help us get there.
“These proceedings were also notable for the participation of witnesses from Afghanistan who gave
evidence via videolink from Kabul.
“This will also be important in future proceedings relating to war crimes allegations when it comes
to the meaningful participation of witnesses and victims from Afghanistan.”
Hadi Marifat, Executive Director at the Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization, said:
“Survivors and victims’ families have a right to full disclosure of the truth and acknowledgement
of the harm caused by Australia’s military operations.
“Investigative journalism has been critical in uncovering the truth and raising public awareness
about what took place.
“Australia’s response must be receptive to the needs and priorities of victims.”
For media enquiries contact: Rawan Arraf +61(0)450 708 870.