The “disturbing conduct” alleged in a wide-ranging report into war crimes in Afghanistan could see Australian soldiers jailed or have their medals stripped, with the government appointing a special investigator.
“This will be difficult and hard news for Australians,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said, warning people to prepare for “brutal truths”.
A year-long investigation by the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force (IGADF) will be made public next week, with some members of the armed services potentially facing federal prosecution for alleged conduct on the battlefield.
The IGADF began probing the conduct of Australian Defence Force members from 2005 to 2016 after media reports and allegations of breaches of laws of armed conflict and misconduct by soldiers.
Media reports have alleged that some elite Australian soldiers in special forces regiments had breached the Law of Armed Conflict by shooting or harming unarmed combatants or restrained prisoners.
Officially, the IGADF said in a previous report earlier this year it was investigating “unlawful killings of persons who were non-combatants or were no longer combatants, but also ‘cruel treatment’ of such persons”.
It was said some 55 incidents were in the spotlight.
The final report was delivered to Defence Force chief General Angus Campbell last week. After being considered by federal officials, Mr Morrison said it would be released – in redacted form – next week.
The PM did not cast aspersions on the wider armed services in Australia, saying only a small number were under scrutiny in this report.
The New Daily understands it could be as few as 20 people under investigation, but Mr Morrison declined to provide a specific number.
Defence Minister Linda Reynolds said General Campbell would have “many options and many recommendations for his action”, which could include stripping service medals from those found to have breached the law.
The New Daily also understands such penalties for guilty parties could include heavy terms of imprisonment.
“Military members are subject to the same laws as apply to other Australians,” the ADF said on its website explaining the Military Justice System.
Special investigator to follow report
Mr Morrison said the legal process would be carried out in Australia and under local laws, not in international courts.
“Such conduct must be held accountable in our justice system by Australians in accordance with our justice system and the Australian rule of law,” he said.
The process, outlined by the PM and defence minister on Thursday, sees the government establish a special investigation unit to examine the report’s findings and claims.
Those involved potentially face prosecution by federal and state police if the report’s findings are substantiated.
A separate oversight panel will be established to investigate the ADF’s response to the claims.
The office of the special investigator will look at criminal matters raised in the report, gather evidence and potentially refer briefs to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions.
The oversight panel will be led by former intelligence watchdog Dr Vivienne Thom and include University of Tasmania vice-chancellor Rufus Black.
It will advise the government on cultural, organisational and leadership issues in defence linked to the allegations.
Politicians back government plan
Labor’s shadow defence minister Richard Marles and shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus supported the government’s course of action.
“It is essential the establishment of this office provide an assurance to the Australian community that the IGADF inquiry is treated with the seriousness it warrants,” the Labor pair said.
“We welcome the establishment of an expert panel to oversee the implementation of cultural and organisational reforms arising from the IGADF inquiry. We must have confidence in the behaviour, standing and culture within the ranks of those who wear our nation’s uniform.”
Greens spokesperson on peace and disarmament, Senator Jordon Steele-John, called for the report to be made public “in full and not redacted”.
“It is alleged on the public record that innocent people have lost their lives at the hands of Australian soldiers,” he said.
“The individuals responsible must lose more than just their medals and the Australian people must know to what extent those allegations are true.”