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War crimes suspect at Queen's funeral

By KARL WILSON in Sydney | China Daily Global | Updated: 2022-09-19 09:25

A former Australian military officer given the highest award in the British honors system but who has been accused of committing war crimes in Afghanistan, including unlawful killings, will be one of those attending the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II in London on Monday.

Ben Roberts-Smith, a former corporal in the Special Air Services, has been the subject of numerous alleged war crimes investigations over his conduct while serving in Afghanistan.

Roberts-Smith, who arrived in London last week, is among four Australians given the opportunity to take part. The invitation to him to attend the funeral, as well as to about 500 or so British and foreign dignitaries, was announced on Tuesday.

Roberts-Smith, 43, is awaiting the outcome of a defamation case in which he is suing the former Fairfax newspapers The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, and The Canberra Times, now owned by the television and media company Nine, and three journalists over reports he alleges wrongly portrayed him as a war criminal and murderer.

The newspapers alleged that Roberts-Smith was involved in six unlawful killings, including the execution of a man at Darwan in southern Afghanistan, claims he has adamantly denied.

He is also being investigated by the Australian Federal Police for war crimes while serving in Afghanistan. He has not been charged with any crime.

Roberts-Smith and three other Australian Victoria Cross recipients were invited separately by the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association of which the Queen was patron since its inception in 1956.

It is understood that it was a request before the British monarch's death on Sept 8 that all living Victoria Cross recipients be invited to her funeral.

All four Victoria Cross recipients, the highest military award for gallantry while under fire, were not invited to fly with the Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and his entourage. Instead, all four made their own way to London.

Diplomats 'annoyed'

As a Victoria Cross recipient, Roberts-Smith's invitation was to be expected but it has been reported that some Australian diplomats were "annoyed" he accepted it.

Roberts-Smith, who was presented with his medal by the Queen, described her as "magnificent".

"I had immense respect for her, and she was someone I admired greatly. In every interaction I had with the Queen she was warm, insightful and engaging," The West Australian newspaper quoted him as saying recently.

The owner of the newspaper, Kerry Stokes, is financing Roberts-Smith's legal fight.

Although the trial ended on July 27, the verdict in which has become Australia's longest defamation case is not expected until the end of the year.

In his summing up, Arthur Moses acting for Roberts-Smith, urged the court to reject the newspapers' truth defense, telling the court that allegations of war crimes leveled against his client had their genesis in the "corrosive jealousy" of a handful of his former Special Air Service comrades.

The case has highlighted serious problems within the Australian Defence Force and especially the army's elite Special Air Service.

In November 2020 the government published a heavily redacted report by the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force into alleged war crimes committed by the Australian military in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016.

The four-year inquiry led by former New South Wales Supreme Court judge and a major general in the army reserve, Paul Brereton, painted a grim picture of abuse by some of Australia's most revered soldiers.

The report's most searing revelation was that 39 Afghans were allegedly murdered by Australian special forces in 23 cases. The report redacts much detail about the events.

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