Aussie ‘war crimes’ suspect invited to attend Queen’s funeral

In this May 16, 2018 photo, Britain's Queen Elizabeth II shakes hands with Victoria Cross recipient Ben Roberts-Smith (second right) during a reception for living recipients of the Victoria and George Cross medals, in the Picture Gallery at Buckingham Palace in London. (JOHN STILLWELL / POOL / AFP)

SYDNEY – An Australian soldier who was given the highest award in the British honours system, but who is also accused of war crimes, is to attend the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II.

The attendance of Ben Roberts-Smith, a recipient of the Victoria Cross, or VC, at the Sept 19 funeral has raised eyebrows because the former Special Air Services, or SAS, corporal has been the subject of multiple alleged war crimes investigations over his conduct while serving in Afghanistan. 

It was announced on Sept 13 that he had been invited, along with about 500 or so British and foreign dignitaries, to attend the ceremony in London. 

Roberts-Smith, 43, is awaiting the outcome of one of the most controversial and bitter defamation case in Australia in which he sued the former Fairfax newspaper The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Canberra Times, now owned by 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 which the former elite SAS soldier has firmly denied. 

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 of since its inception in 1956

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 of 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 VC members be invited to her funeral.

All four VC 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 had to make their own way to London and at their own expense.

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.

Australian High Commission officials in London expected he would decline to attend while dogged by accusations of war crimes and a high-profile trial.

His invitation has also been met with outrage from some reporters at Nine, despite it being automatic due to his medal.

Roberts-Smith who was presented with his medal by the Queen described the late monarch as “magnificent”.

“I had an 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,” he told The West Australian newspaper recently.

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

Although the case 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 defence, telling the court that allegations of war crimes levelled against his client had their genesis in the “corrosive jealousy” of a handful of his former Special Air Service comrades. 

The media outlets’ case was based on “mere suspicion, surmise and guesswork”, he said.

Moses said a “war of words” had erupted between Roberts-Smith and some of his former comrades after he was awarded the Victoria Cross in 2011 for his actions in a 2010 battle in Tizak, Afghanistan.

He said the evidence revealed those men had embarked upon a campaign of rumour and innuendo against Roberts-Smith and the newspapers’ journalists had “jumped on the rumours like salmon jumping on a hook” and published them as fact.

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

In November 2020 the government released 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 staggering revelation was that 39 Afghans were allegedly murdered by Australian special forces in 23 incidents. The report redacts much detail about the individual alleged incidents.

Brereton said at the time that the circumstances of each, were they to be eventually accepted by a jury, would constitute the war crime of murder.

All the allegations are now subject to investigation and criminal prosecution. 

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