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Australia’s Possible Role in Providing Justice for Afghanistan War Crimes

Australia must protect witnesses and remain transparent while it investigates members of its elite special forces for allegedly committing crimes against civilians in Afghanistan, writes Human Rights Watch senior researcher Patricia Gossman.

Written by Patricia Gossman Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes
Australian SAS Soldiers on Patrol near Bagram, Afghanistan in January 2003. Fairfax Media/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

The accounts are both shocking and horribly familiar.

Soldiers acting as if they were above the law assault and murder civilians in a barbaric competition to outdo each other. New recruits compelled to prove themselves by killing. The victims are not enemies in battle but the elderly, men with disabilities, a farmer on his way to buy flour – essentially anyone who can’t fight back.

The accused? Members of Australia’s elite special forces, the Special Air Service Regiment (SASR).

The SASR are under investigation in Australia in a case that may be involve the “most serious and high-profile allegations” the force has faced. According to a Fairfax Media report, such crimes became a routine part of SASR operations in Afghanistan’s Uruzgan province between 2006 and 2013. One soldier shot dead an elderly unarmed man in an initiation ritual. Another kicked a handcuffed Afghan civilian off a cliff and then executed him. Other soldiers removed a man’s prosthetic leg and took it back to Perth to use as a souvenir drinking vessel.

These and other alleged SASR crimes committed in Afghanistan are under investigation by New South Wales Judge Paul Brereton. Those familiar with the charges describe a culture of competitive violence and a “complete lack of accountability” within the elite force. Witnesses in the investigation, including SASR soldiers who have agreed to testify, have received threats warning them of retaliation if they do.

Australia’s SASR join the ranks of other ostensibly elite forces whose crimes are emblematic of the worst aspects of the international coalition’s involvement in Afghanistan. In 2015, the U.S. reopened a criminal inquiry into the alleged torture and murder of 17 civilians by an army Special Forces unit between 2012 and 2013 – no information has been released since the inquiry began. Since early 2016, the U.K. authorities investigated allegations that British Special Air Services troops murdered at least 53 civilians between 2009 and 2011, snatching some from their beds, handcuffing and hooding them before shooting them dead. The inquiry into these allegations was shut down.

Australia needs to do better, most importantly by ensuring the protection of witnesses who come forward and by prosecuting those threatening retaliation against them. Only by transparently investigating the alleged war crimes and prosecuting those responsible can Australia bring some measure of justice to the victims and end impunity in the SASR.

This story was originally published by Human Rights Watch and is reproduced with permission.

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