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Ex-soldier Ben Roberts-Smith, here in 2021 on his way to the court in Sydney

Photo: Rick Rycroft/AP

He is one of Australia's most decorated soldiers – now he is also considered a proven murderer by parts of the public. Ben Roberts-Smith was a non-commissioned officer in Australia's elite Special Air Services (SAS) regiment and, according to media reports, is said to have committed several murders in Afghanistan. Roberts-Smith denied the crimes and filed a defamation lawsuit in federal court in Sydney.

The court has now dismissed the lawsuit in a spectacular ruling. The reason: The newspapers had substantiated many of their claims as "essentially true".

Prosthetic leg as a beer mug

Roberts-Smith had sued the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and the Canberra Times for reports published in 2018. The articles addressed his involvement in the unlawful killing of six unarmed prisoners in Afghanistan.

The ex-military, on the other hand, claimed that he had been wrongly portrayed as someone who had violated the moral and legal rules of military operation.

The newspapers were able to prove four of the six murder charges. In one case, Roberts-Smith allegedly kicked a handcuffed man down a cliff. In another, he killed an Afghan with a prosthetic leg. He transferred the prosthesis to Australia and encouraged soldiers to drink beer from it.

Roberts-Smith was "callous and inhumane," said federal judge Anthony Besanko after reviewing the evidence in the newspapers. In view of my conclusions, any defamation case must be dismissed," he said.

National hero accused of murder

The 44-year-old Roberts-Smith was considered a national hero after receiving several top military awards, including the Victoria Cross, for his operations during six tours of Afghanistan from 2006 to 2012. His portrait hangs in the Australian War Memorial.

With the verdict, the soldier has to put up with being able to be called a murderer. However, he is not a convicted murderer. Roberts-Smith was not accused of any crimes.

Nevertheless, the verdict is a milestone. It represents a victory for the media companies, which seek greater accountability for the Australian military, which is usually bound by confidentiality.

The elite SAS unit has long been criticized for alleged war crimes. A total of 39 Afghan civilians and prisoners are said to have been killed, according to an internal military investigation report in 2020. In March, a 41-year-old veteran was arrested for the first time in the state of New South Wales. He is charged with the murder of an Afghan.