Australia's war memorial mulls changing war hero display after defamation case

  • World
  • Friday, 02 Jun 2023

FILE PHOTO: An Australian soldier in pictured in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at dusk on the eve of ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) Day at the Australian National War Memorial in Canberra April 24, 2014. REUTERS/Phil Noble

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia's War Memorial said it was considering "additional content and context" for displays about its most decorated soldier, Ben Roberts-Smith, after a civil court ruling that found it was true he was involved in the murder of six Afghans.

Roberts-Smith, 44, was previously seen as a national hero, winning top military honours including the Victoria Cross for his actions during six tours in Afghanistan, but on Thursday lost a defamation lawsuit against three newspapers that accused him of murdering Afghan civilians on tour.

Roberts-Smith, who quit his television excutive job on Friday, has not been charged with any offences.

Australian civil courts require a lower threshold to prove accusations than criminal courts do.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, noting it was a determination in a civil proceeding, told reporters on Friday: "That didn’t involve the government, and it would be inappropriate to comment on the detail of that, given the potential that is then there for future action that the government might be a party to."

Australia has established an Office of the Special Investigator to work with federal police to examine allegations of criminal offences by defence force members in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2016.

A four-year investigation known as the Brereton report found in 2020 that Australian special forces had allegedly killed 39 unarmed prisoners and civilians in Afghanistan. Australia referred 19 current and former soldiers for potential criminal prosecution as a result.

Albanese confirmed his government would act on the findings of the Brereton report.

The Australian Federal Police declined to comment on Friday on whether Roberts-Smith was among the cases under investigation, and referred questions to the special investigator's office, which did not immediately respond.

Chris Moraitis, Director-General of the Office of the Special Investigator, told a parliament committee hearing last week that one former soldier was charged with war crimes in March, and investigations are progressing in another 40 matters.

"Our whole existence is to examine, as best we can, what happened in that period in Afghanistan involving Special Forces and whether they did or did not comply with international humanitarian law," he told the parliament committee.

Kim Beazley, chair of the Australian War Memorial and a former defence minister, said the memorial in the national capital Canberra - where Roberts-Smith's uniform, medals and portrait are displayed - helps Australians to understand the conduct and consequences of war.

"The Memorial acknowledges the gravity of the decision in the Ben Roberts-Smith VC MG defamation case and its broader impact on all involved in the Australian community," he said in a statement on Friday.

The civil legal case is "one step in a longer process", he added. "We are considering carefully the additional content and context to be included in these displays," he said.

Greens Senator David Shoebridge had earlier called for Roberts-Smith's uniform and medals to be removed from the memorial.

On Wednesday, Australia's defence chief said the Brereton report had prompted a U.S. warning in 2021 that allegations Australian special forces soldiers killed civilians in Afghanistan might trigger a law prohibiting cooperation with the U.S. armed forces, though the matter had since been resolved.

(Reporting by Kirsty Needham and Byron Kaye in Sydney)

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