KABUL: The Taliban on Thursday said foreign forces had committed “uncountable crimes” during the 20-year war in Afghanistan after a former Australian soldier lost a defamation case over reports of executing Afghan civilians.
Taliban administration spokesperson Bilal Karimi said the incidents involved in the Australian court case were a “small part” of the many alleged crimes that took place and that they did not trust any court globally to follow them up.
Ben Roberts-Smith, a former member of Australia’s elite Special Air Service Regiment, sued three newspapers for 2018 reports that alleged he was involved in the murders of unarmed prisoners in Afghanistan.
Roberts-Smith denied the allegations and launched a multi-million-dollar defamation case in response.
Australian soldier loses war crimes defamation case
But after two years of proceedings, Justice Anthony Beskano ruled that the papers had proven the bulk of their allegations to be “substantially true” and dismissed the case against them.
The defendants hailed the verdict as a major victory for media freedom in Australia, where defamation laws are often used to muzzle the press.
But journalist Nick McKenzie said it was also a victory for servicemen who testified against their former comrade and for Afghan victims.
“It’s a day of justice for those brave men of the SAS who stood up and told the truth about who Ben Roberts-Smith is — a war criminal, a bully and a liar.
“Australia should be proud of those men in the SAS, they are the majority in the SAS.” “Today is a day of some small justice for the Afghan victims of Ben Roberts-Smith,” he added.
Before the trial, Perth-born Roberts-Smith had been Australia’s most famous and distinguished living soldier.
He won the Victoria Cross — Australia’s highest military honour — for “conspicuous gallantry” in Afghanistan while on the hunt for a senior Taliban commander.
He met Queen Elizabeth II and his image hung in the hallowed halls of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
But after painstaking reporting, The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Canberra Times alleged that lauded public persona masked a pattern of criminal and immoral behaviour.
The papers reported Roberts-Smith had kicked an unarmed Afghan civilian off a cliff and ordered subordinates to shoot him.
He was also said to have taken part in the machine-gunning of a man with a prosthetic leg, later bringing the leg back to Australia and using it as a drinking vessel with comrades.
The towering veteran was also accused of domestic violence against a woman in a Canberra hotel — an allegation the justice said had not been proven.
The case was one of Australia’s longest-running defamation trials and local media has estimated the legal costs to be about US$16 million, making it also one of the costliest.
Lawyers for the media defendants indicated they would now be seeking “indemnity costs against the applicant”.
Published in Dawn, June 2nd, 2023