A four-year investigation has uncovered “deeply disturbing” allegations that elite Australian troops killed 39 Afghan prisoners during the troops’ deployment in the country as part of the U.S.-led coalition fighting the Taliban.
Australian Defense Force Chief General Angus Campbell said the shameful record came to light in the investigation whose findings, released on November 19, allege “the most serious breaches of military conduct and professional values."
The inquiry uncovered allegations of inhuman treatment of detainees in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2016.
The report describes alleged instances in which newly deployed members of a patrol would shoot a prisoner in order to achieve their first kill in a practice known as “blooding.”
Campbell said the soldiers would plant weapons, radios, and grenades to support false claims the prisoners were enemies killed in action.
None of these alleged killings could be "described as being in the heat of battle," he said, speaking to reporters in Canberra.
Australia deployed troops to Afghanistan in 2002 after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Around 1,550 Australian personnel are currently in the country.
The investigation was conducted by Paul Brereton, a judge who interviewed more than 400 witnesses and reviewed thousands of pages of documents.
Brereton "found there to be credible information to substantiate 23 incidents of alleged unlawful killing of 39 people by 25 Australian Special Forces personnel, predominantly from the Special Air Service Regiment (SAS)," said Campbell.
The report recommends 19 soldiers be investigated by police for possible charges, including murder.
Campbell said he’d spoken directly to his Afghan military counterpart to express his remorse and added an apology to the people of Afghanistan, which he read during the briefing.
“On behalf of the Australian Defense Force, I sincerely and unreservedly apologize for any wrongdoing by Australian soldiers,” Campbell said.
The alleged behavior of the Special Forces “profoundly disrespected the trust placed in us by the Afghan people who had asked us to their country to help them,” he said.
Morrison called Afghan President Ashraf Ghani ahead of the report's release to express "his deepest sorrow over the misconduct by some Australian troops" and told him investigations would be conducted to ensure justice.
Last week, the Australian government announced the creation of an Office of the Special Investigator to examine potential criminal matters raised by the Brereton report.
It said the office would be staffed with experienced investigators from the Australian Federal Police, state police experts, and legal counsel, who will gather evidence and refer briefs to the commonwealth director of public prosecutions for consideration.
In a statement, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the findings of the Brereton report highlight the need for “prompt, independent criminal investigations leading to appropriate prosecutions.”
“The Morrison government needs to ensure the Special Investigator’s Office has the resources it needs to act quickly to ensure justice. As time drags on, the prospect of justice for Afghan victims becomes more and more remote,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at the New York-based watchdog.
HRW urged the government to ensure that the special investigator’s office is independent from both the military and political actors, and that it investigates all those in the chain of command implicated in abuses.