Landmark defamation trial reveals decorated soldier’s lies and murder cover-up

A recent ruling in a high-profile defamation case has found that Ben Roberts-Smith, Australia’s most decorated living soldier, lied to hide his misconduct and threatened witnesses. The judgement also determined that Roberts-Smith was “complicit in and responsible for” the murder of three Afghans. The case involved a defamation suit against three Australian newspapers, which Roberts-Smith accused of ruining his life through their reports of his alleged war crimes. The outcome of the case has raised questions about a possible broader examination of war crime allegations involving Australian forces.

Last week, Federal Court Judge Anthony Besanko dismissed the former special forces corporal’s case against The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, and The Canberra Times. The reasons for the judgement were delayed until Monday to allow Australian authorities to ensure that no national security secrets were inadvertently revealed. However, Judge Besanko ultimately found that the allegations that Roberts-Smith had murdered unarmed prisoners and civilians during his service in Afghanistan were “substantially true.”

The 44-year-old was deemed “not an honest and reliable witness” by the judge, who expressed difficulty in accepting Roberts-Smith’s evidence on any disputed issue. The court also found that the Victoria Cross recipient used a special forces code of silence to intimidate witnesses and threatened others. In one instance, Roberts-Smith sent a legal threat to Australia’s wealthiest woman, Gina Rinehart, warning that a former soldier related to her would be sued for speaking ill of him. Additionally, Roberts-Smith hired a private detective to investigate another ex-soldier who questioned his past, resulting in a report that profiled the veteran, his wife, and his parents.

In a recorded conversation, Roberts-Smith criticised soldiers who broke the code of silence, stating, “A few people [in the special forces] had done what we don’t do and that’s talk out of school.” While he has not commented since the ruling, it is anticipated that he will appeal to the full bench of the federal court.

The defamation trial, which lasted 110 days, cost an estimated A$25m (US$16.3m, £13.2m). Roberts-Smith was previously considered a national hero for his actions in overpowering Taliban machine-gunners attacking his Special Air Service (SAS) platoon, which earned him Australia’s highest military honour. He held high-profile executive positions and received numerous accolades, including being named Father of the Year in 2013. Although he has not been charged with any offences, the father of two is currently under investigation by the Australia Federal Police for alleged war crimes committed in Afghanistan.

In 2020, the Brereton Report revealed “credible evidence” that elite Australian soldiers unlawfully killed 39 people in Afghanistan. The report recommended that 19 current or former soldiers be investigated for alleged killings of prisoners and civilians between 2009 and 2013.

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Lilly Larkin

Lilly is a writer with a diverse international background, having lived in various countries including Thailand. Her unique experiences provide valuable insights and culturally sensitive perspectives in her news reporting. When not writing, Lilly enjoys exploring local art scenes, volunteering for community projects, and connecting with people from different cultures.