Australia will appoint a special investigator to determine whether to prosecute members of the country’s military for alleged war crimes committed in Afghanistan, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Thursday, as the country prepared for the release of a four-year inquiry into the allegations.
The inspector-general of the Australian Defence Forces began the inquiry into the conduct of its elite special forces in 2016 after local media reported on allegations that unarmed men and children had been killed between 2005 and 2016.
While Morrison did not reveal details of the inquiry, which is set to be released next week, he said it would contain “difficult and hard news for Australians”.
“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,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra.
The Australian military was deployed alongside forces from the United States and other allies in Afghanistan following the September 11, 2001 attacks.
In the years since, a series of often-harrowing reports have emerged about the conduct of its elite special forces units – ranging from a prisoner being shot dead to save space in a helicopter to the killing of a six-year-old child in a house raid.
The government initially tried to suppress whistle-blower accounts of the alleged wrongdoing, with police moving to investigate the reporters involved.
Meanwhile, it also began the probe into what it called “rumours and allegations” of “possible breaches of the Law of Armed Conflict”.
Earlier this year, an annual defence report revealed the investigation had identified 55 separate incidents, most relating to the unlawful killings of “persons who were non-combatants or were no longer combatants” as well as “cruel treatment”.
Morrison said a redacted version of the report would be released.
The appointment of a prosecutor represents an escalation in the legal process and could lead to criminal charges against the military personnel.
Morrison said the need for a special prosecutor reflected the complexity of the allegations.
The prime minister also said an independent panel had also been set up to improve the culture within the armed forces and oversee the defence response to the inquiry.
The alleged crimes first came to public attention in 2017 when the ABC, Australia’s public broadcaster, published the so-called Afghan files, which alleged Australian troops had killed unarmed men and children in Afghanistan.