There is “credible evidence” that soldiers, mainly from within the Australian Army’s Special Air Service (SAS) elite unit, unlawfully killed 39 people during the civil war in Afghanistan, according to findings from a four-year inquiry into misconduct by the Australian Defence Force.
For more than four years, Major General Justice Paul Brereton investigated allegations that a small group within the elite Special Air Service and commandos regiments killed and brutalised civilians in Afghanistan.
Brereton describes the actions of the small group as “disgraceful and a profound betrayal” of the Australian Defence Force.
The inquiry, which investigated 57 incidents and heard from more than 300 witnesses, uncovered a “shameful record” of a “warrior culture” by some soldiers, Australian Defence Force Chief General Angus Campbell said.
Nineteen current or former soldiers should be investigated by police over the killings of “prisoners, farmers or civilians” between 2009 and 2013, Brereton’s report found.
Australia’s Defence Minister Linda Reynolds said in a statement that the report was “crucial to maintaining the highest standards of our military”.
Brereton’s report alleges that junior soldiers were ordered to kill Afghani prisoners in order to “blood’’ them and then placed “throwdown” weapons or other military equipment next to the bodies of the deceased to falsely represent them as having posed a military threat.
The inquiry by the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force James Gaynor found “credible information of 23 incidents in which one or more non-combatants or persons hors de combat (no longer in combat) were unlawfully killed by, or at, the direction of members of the Special Operations Task Force Group”.
Campbell said he accepted all 143 recommendations, including referring individuals to the office of the special investigator to consider potential criminal cases, because it was his duty “to set things right”.
He also foreshadowed changes to the army’s organisational structure and a review into honours and awards. In the meantime, the meritorious unit citation awarded to Special Operations Task Group rotations serving in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2013 will be revoked.
“To the people of Afghanistan, on behalf of the Australian Defence Force, I sincerely and unreservedly apologise for any wrongdoing by Australian soldiers,” Campbell said during a press conference in Canberra on Thursday.
“And to the people of Australia, I am sincerely sorry for any wrongdoing by members of the Australian Defence Force,” he said, adding that the majority of special forces “did not choose to take this unlawful path”.
Afghanistan said it had been assured by Australia that it was committed to “ensuring justice”.