Australia will appoint a special prosecutor to investigate alleged war crimes committed by Australian special forces in Afghanistan.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison on November 12 warned Australians to expect allegations of "serious and possibly criminal misconduct" ahead of the release a report into the conduct of elite Australian soldiers in Afghanistan.
In 2016, the Inspector-General of the Australian Defense Forces launched a four-year probe examining allegations of unlawful killings and other possible breaches of the law of armed conflict by elite special forces units between 2005 and 2016.
The probe came amid allegations by Australian media and whistleblowers about the killing of Afghan civilians and unarmed prisoners – including an instance of a prisoner being shot dead to save space in a helicopter and the killing of a six-year-old child in a raid.
Earlier this year, the Inspector-General identified 55 separate potential incidents, most relating to the unlawful killings of non-combatants or people who were no longer combatants.
Morrison said a redacted version of the Inspector-General's report would be released within days.
“Given the likely allegations of serious and possibly criminal misconduct, the matters raised in the inquiry must be assessed, investigated and where allegations are substantiated, prosecuted in court. To undertake this role, the government is establishing the Office of the Special Investigator,” Morrison announced.
The prime minister said soldiers, if charged, would be dealt with through the Australian justice system, in a move partially designed to prevent any action by the International Criminal Court.
Nearly 40,000 Australian soldiers have served in Afghanistan alongside U.S. and allied forces following the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.
“There is some disturbing conduct here, but we cannot then take that and apply it to everyone who has pulled on a uniform and if we did this, that would be grossly unjust,’’ the prime minister said.
“We all share a deep respect for our defense forces, but we also share a deep respect for justice. It is about managing those two issues to the highest standards I think we place on them in Australia,” he said.
The alleged war crimes first came to public attention in 2017 when public broadcaster ABC published leaked secret documents of special operations in Afghanistan, including cases of soldiers killing unarmed men and children.
In response, Australian police launched an investigation into ABC over what became known as the Afghan Files, but journalists Daniel Oakes and Sam Clark were ultimately not prosecuted.