Australia’s most highly decorated former SAS soldier, Ben Roberts-Smith, is being investigated by the Australian Federal Police for allegedly kicking a handcuffed detainee off a small cliff in an Afghan village in 2012.
Multiple serving and former defence sources in Australia and Afghanistan have confirmed that Mr Roberts-Smith, a Victoria Cross winner, is the subject of the AFP inquiry into the brutalisation of Afghan farmer and father Ali Jan after he was taken into custody by the SAS on September 11 that year.
On Friday, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald reported that federal police detectives had travelled earlier this year to Afghanistan and gathered eyewitness testimony from people in and around the village of Darwan that implicates Australian special forces soldiers in the alleged brutal assault and murder.
SAS personnel and support staff have also given eyewitness statements to federal police agents about the treatment of Ali Jan or the operation in which he was killed, according to defence sources who cannot be named because they are not authorised to speak publicly. Under international law, detainees must be treated humanely and be protected from any act of violence.
The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and 60 Minutes can now reveal that Mr Roberts-Smith is facing an accusation that he picked a handcuffed Ali Jan out of a group of detainees and then led him to the edge of a small cliff, after which he kicked him off. Another soldier is suspected of shooting dead the injured detainee a short time later, the sources said.
In addition to the AFP, the military Inspector-General is separately investigating Ali Jan’s treatment as an alleged war crime and also dispatched investigators to Afghanistan.
Mr Roberts-Smith denies all wrongdoing and has initiated defamation proceedings against Nine, publisher of this article, which in 2018 first reported allegations that Mr Roberts-Smith was implicated in war crimes. He was approached for comment.
The family of Ali Jan has issued a call for justice, urging the Australian government to fully investigate the assault and death of a man they say was an innocent detainee.
Ali Jan’s wife, Bibi Dhorko, said: “I want justice because I have been widowed … my children are now helpless.” She said Ali Jan was a family man and a farmer with no involvement in the violence in the badlands of Southern Afghanistan. “He didn’t side with anyone and never had a gun. He was living in the mountain and doing his work, only going occasionally to the village if we needed any supplies.”
He was one of around fifty male villagers from Darwan who was arrested by the SAS during a sweep through the small village as they searched for rogue Afghan army sergeant Hekmatullah, who weeks earlier had murdered three Australian soldiers.
Prominent MP Andrew Hastie, a former SAS Captain and Afghan veteran, along with two SAS insiders, called on the Australian public to back the work of the defence force Inspector-General who is investigating alleged war crimes.
The revelation of the AFP trip to Afghanistan comes after ABC reports that the defence force Inspector-General sent Supreme Court of Appeal judge Paul Brereton and investigators to Kabul to also gather evidence about events at Darwan.
While not commenting on any specific allegations, Mr Hastie said the Brereton inquiry was only focusing on serious incidents – such as alleged summary executions of prisoners – and not “fog of war” incidents, as claimed by critics of the inquiry.
Mr Hastie also backed the defence force chief Angus Campbell for calling the inquiry and the SAS witnesses who had given evidence. “This has been driven from the ground up. This isn’t some witch hunt from above. It’s operators with moral courage who’ve spoken up.”
Mr Hastie’s comments have been backed by serving and former members of the SAS, who said most soldiers in the regiment welcomed scrutiny and accountability. The AFP’s trip to Afghanistan is the first time the agency has ever deployed detectives overseas to investigate alleged war crimes involving Australian soldiers.
A federal police spokesperson has confirmed that “investigators recently deployed to Afghanistan in support of the war crimes investigations. The AFP were supported by Afghanistan authorities in country and inquiries with international partners remain ongoing.”
The revelation that federal agents are seeking to corroborate eyewitness testimony from SAS soldiers or support staff with first hand accounts of Afghans at the scene of the alleged atrocity at Darwan suggests the AFP is undertaking an exhaustive search for witnesses.
The Age, the Herald and 60 Minutes have revealed over the weekend new details of other alleged war crimes allegations involving Australian special forces. Commando and SAS soldiers have confessed to executing detainees in Afghanistan, in flagrant breach of the law.