Prisoners, farmers and other civilians were among the 39 people who were allegedly murdered by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan, an inquiry into war crimes has found.
Australian Defence Force chief Angus Campbell released the heavily redacted final report detailing Major General Justice Paul Brereton’s findings on Thursday.
At a press conference in Canberra, Campbell said Brereton found “credible information to substantiate 23 incidents of alleged unlawful killing of 39 people by 25 Australian Special Forces personnel, predominantly from the Special Air Service Regiment”.
Brereton investigated 57 allegations and made 143 recommendations in his report — including for the referral of 36 incidents to the Australian Federal Police — all of which have been accepted. He also recommended that Australia compensate the families of those who have been unlawfully killed.
The inquiry heard that some members of the Special Operations Task Group carried ‘throwdowns’ — foreign weapons or equipment such as pistols, small hand-held radios and grenades — “to be placed with the bodies of ‘enemy killed in action’ for the purposes of site exploitation photography”, the report noted.
“This practice probably originated for the less egregious though still dishonest purpose of avoiding scrutiny where a person who was legitimately engaged turned out not to be armed. But it evolved to be used for the purpose of concealing deliberate unlawful killings,” it said.
Campbell noted the findings included incidents where soldiers were instructed to shoot a prisoner in order to achieve their first kill in an “appalling practice known as blooding”.
“Typically, the patrol commander would take a person under control and the junior member, who would then be directed to kill the person under control. ‘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 said.
Of the cases involving the killing of 39 people, Brereton wrote:
“None of these are incidents of disputable decisions made under pressure in the heat of battle. The cases in which it has been found that there is credible information of a war crime are ones in which it was or should have been plain that the person killed was a non-combatant, or hors-de-combat. While a few of these are cases of Afghan local nationals encountered during an operation who were on no reasonable view participating in hostilities, the vast majority are cases where the persons were killed when hors-de-combat because they had been captured and were persons under control, and as such were protected under international law, breach of which was a crime.”
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In a statement following the release of the findings, defence minister Linda Reynolds said accountability would be the “cornerstone” of Defence’s response to the report.
“This is crucial to maintaining the highest standards Australians expect of our military, reassuring confidence and trust, and learning from grave failings,” she said.
“I am profoundly conscious this process continues to be extremely challenging and distressing for many individuals and families impacted by the inquiry. Defence will keep working hard to make sure people get the right support when they need it. This is the government’s highest priority. I strongly encourage current and former serving ADF members and their families to reach out and seek the help they need.”
The independent inquiry was commissioned by Defence in 2016 after rumours and allegations emerged relating to possible breaches of the Law of Armed Conflict by members of the Special Operations Task Group in Afghanistan over the period 2005 to 2016.
Last week the government announced a new Office of the Special Investigator would investigate and prosecute the matters raised in the inquiry.
An independent oversight panel has also been established to provide oversight and assurance of Defence’s broader response to the inquiry relating to cultural, organisational and leadership changes.