A landmark report has revealed that Australian special forces soldiers were allegedly involved in the unlawful killings of 39 Afghan civilians and prisoners of war, and the cruel treatment of two others.
Australian Defence Force Chief Angus Campbell fronted the media on Thursday to deliver the findings of the review, calling the actions of some defence force troops “deeply disturbing” and labelling their actions as “grave misconduct”.
The report, collated over a four-year-period by Maj Gen Justice Paul Brereton, found “credible information” relating to the war crimes of 25 current or former Australian Defence Force personnel. Thirty-six matters have been recommended to be investigated by the federal police, and relate to 23 incidents involving 19 personnel.
The report, which is heavily redacted in large parts, highlighted some confronting conduct, including that new recruits were instructed by more senior soldiers to kill prisoners of war, part of a “blooding” process, designed to give them their first kill. The report also said that “possibly the most disgraceful episode of Australia’s military history” was committed in 2012.
None of the killings alleged in the report were committed in the heat of the battle. The victims were described as “non-combatants”, and that the 23 incidents, if accepted by a jury, “would be the war crime of murder”.
“None were alleged to have occurred in circumstances in which the intent of the perpetrator was unclear, confused or mistaken,” General Campbell said on Thursday.
“And every person spoken to by the inquiry thoroughly understood the law of armed conflict and the rule of engagement under which they operated. These findings allege the most serious breaches of military conduct and professional values.”
The report suggests there is a cover-up culture within the Special Air Service.
Justice Brereton found credible information that some members of the Special Operations Task Group carried ‘throwdowns” – foreign weapons or equipment – “to be placed with the bodies of ‘enemy killed in action’ for the purposes of site exploitation photography, in order to portray that the person killed had been carrying the weapon or other military equipment when engaged and was a legitimate target.”
“‘Throwdowns’ would be placed with the body, and a ‘cover story’ was created for the purposes of operational reporting and to deflect scrutiny. This was reinforced with a code of silence,” the report says.
It is written that this practice evolved “to be used for the purpose of concealing deliberate unlawful killings”.
General Campbell offered an apology “for any wrongdoing by Australian soldiers”, and said he had already offered an apology to his Afghan counterpart.
“Such alleged behaviour profoundly disrespected the trust placed in us by the Afghan people who had asked us to their country to help them,” he said.
Justice Brereton, the author of the report, placed the largest share of blame on patrol commanders.
“While it would have been much easier to report that it was poor command and leadership that was primarily to blame for the events disclosed in this Report, that would be a gross distortion,” he wrote.
“While, as will appear, commanders at troop, squadron and Special Operations Task Group level must bear some responsibility for the events that happened ‘on their watch’, the criminal behaviour of a few was commenced, committed, continued and concealed at the patrol commander level, that is, at corporal or sergeant level.”
The report provided 143 recommendations, which General Campbell said he accepts and promised swift administrative and disciplinary action.
“It has to be said that what this report discloses is disgraceful and a profound betrayal of the Australian Defence Force’s professional standards and expectations,” the report says.
“Ultimately, there is an important difference between pulling a trigger and getting it wrong, and taking a prisoner and executing them in cold blood. Anyone who does not recognise this distinction, or is prepared to ignore it, does not deserve to belong in any professional military, let alone the ADF.”