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Australian soldier sues media over Afghanistan war crimes allegations

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SYDNEY: On Monday (June 7), a defamation trial began in which one of Australia’s most titled soldiers against three major newspapers accused him of war crimes in Afghanistan.

Ben Roberts-Smith, a former member of Australia’s elite Special Aviation Regiment, is suing newspapers and individual journalists on all three for 2018 articles alleging he committed murder and other atrocities while serving in Afghanistan.

According to court documents, the defendants, including the Sydney Morning Herald, The Canberra Times, and Melbourne’s The Age, will claim the reports were true.

READ: Shame and excuse as Australia digests Afghan military killings report

The Australian military and police are investigating numerous war crimes allegedly committed by members of the SAS elite soldiers in Afghanistan.

Defense witnesses include at least four Afghan villagers who are due to appear via video link from Kabul, court documents show.

Roberts-Smith was awarded the Victoria Cross and Medal of Bravery for service in Afghanistan, among Australia’s highest military awards.

He is now the director of Channel 7 Television in Queensland.

The trial in the Federal Court will last eight to ten weeks and is expected to include about 60 witnesses, a spokesman for the court said.

READ: Australia to close embassy in Afghanistan over security concerns

Part of the trial is likely to be closed to the public, including the media, when national security issues arise.

Australia has deployed 39,000 troops over two decades in US and NATO-led operations against Taliban and militant groups in Afghanistan.

The country will withdraw its small contingent of its remaining support personnel by September, in line with the planned US withdrawal.

Last year, an internal investigation into military misconduct revealed that special forces officers “illegally killed” 39 Afghan civilians and prisoners.

The report marked a watershed moment for the Australian government, which previously tried to cover up whistleblower reports of alleged wrongdoing, with police even investigating reporters involved in disclosing the reports.

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