Ben Roberts-Smith, Australia’s most-decorated living soldier, has lost a defamation case against three newspapers who reported claims that he had murdered unarmed prisoners and civilians while serving in Afghanistan. The judge said the allegations that he was actually a war criminal, a liar and a bully were “substantially true”.
For almost a decade, Australia’s most decorated war veteran, Ben Roberts-Smith, enjoyed celebrity status in his home country. The imposing former Special Air Service soldier was considered a living exemplar of what’s known as the Anzac legend, shorthand for nationally-venerated qualities like courage and mateship. His heroism in Afghanistan earned him a Victoria Cross and a meeting with Queen Elizabeth the Second. Now, his alleged actions during the same conflict have him branded a war criminal.
Roberts-Smith’s reputation hit freefall in 2018 when three Australian newspapers published a series of articles describing allegations of murder and domestic abuse. Roberts-Smith sued the publications in an attempt to clear his name. The expensive legal action had the opposite effect. After more than 100 days of extraordinary hearings, Justice Anthony Besanko found, on the balance of probabilities, Ben Roberts-Smith committed, or was complicit in, four murders in Afghanistan.
The most shocking of the allegations published by the newspapers was that Roberts-Smith kicked a handcuffed farmer off a cliff, then either shot him or ordered him shot to ensure he was dead. Roberts-Smith’s denial of Ali Jan’s murder was dismissed by Justice Besanko, who found the soldier was “not an honest and reliable witness” in many areas. Roberts-Smith was also found to have pressured a new recruit to kill an elderly, unarmed Afghan, and to have machine-gunned a man with a prosthetic leg, then taken the leg back to Australia to use as a drinking vessel.
Roberts-Smith is reported to be among several former soldiers under police investigation. Earlier this year, another SAS veteran became the first serving or former Australian Defence Force member to be charged with the war crime of murder under domestic law. A 2020 inquiry found that the country’s elite forces unlawfully killed as many as 39 Afghan civilians. Roberts-Smith is so celebrated in Australia his uniform and portrait sits in the country’s war museum. It has not committed to removing the materials, but its chairman has said the museum will consider adding “additional content and context”.
This week’s findings are civil only and may yet face an appeal. The media mogul who backed Roberts-Smith’s case – Kerry Stokes, his employer at a major television network – is yet to reveal the veteran’s next steps. For his part, Roberts-Smith was not present when the findings were revealed. He was at a resort in Bali.