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Explained: Brereton War Crimes Report, and why Australian special forces troops may be sacked

The Brereton War Crimes Report alleges a group of 19 soldiers within the Australian Defence Force’s (ADF) elite Special Air Services and commandos regiment had killed at least 39 Afghan civilians.

The inquiry found “credible evidence” of the “murder” of 39 prisoners, farmers and other civilians by 19 special forces soldiers between 2005 and 2016. (Screenshot: ABC News)

The Australian army moved to discharge 13 soldiers in connection with a recent report that alleged that a number of Afghani civilians and prisoners were unlawfully killed, the head of the country’s army announced on Friday.

The report, which was released last week and is widely being referred to as the ‘Brereton War Crimes Report’, alleges that a group of 19 soldiers within the Australian Defence Force’s (ADF) elite Special Air Services and commandos regiment had killed and brutalised at least 39 Afghan civilians, including children.

While ADF Lieutenant General Rick Burr has not identified the 13 soldiers facing dismissal, he told reporters on Friday that they were not part of the 19 current and former soldiers named in the report.

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“We are all committed to learning from the inquiry and emerging from this a stronger, more capable and effective army,” he added.

What is the Brereton War Crimes Report?

The damning report was released after a four-year inquiry led by Army Reserve Major General Paul Brereton following whistle-blower and local media reports of alleged killings of unarmed Afghani civilians. Over four years, investigators looked into at least 57 incidents of misconduct and questioned over 400 witnesses under oath.

Australian Defense Force Chief Angus Campbell said that the inquiry found “credible evidence” of the “murder” of 39 prisoners, farmers and other civilians by 19 special forces soldiers between 2005 and 2016. The report described the soldier’s actions as a “disgraceful and a profound betrayal” of the ADF.

Apologising to the people of both Afghanistan and Australia, Campbell added that the report had unearthed a “shameful record” of warrior culture” by a few troops. “Today the Australian Defense Force is rightly held to account for allegations of grave misconduct by some members of our special forces community on operations in Afghanistan,” he said. 📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram

What were the main findings of the report?

The report identified 25 soldiers who were involved either directly or as “accessories” in the killing of Afghani civilians. Some of the perpetrators were still serving in the Australian Defence Force, according to Brereton.

The soldiers carried out a number of gruesome acts, the report stated, ranging from slitting throats and keeping kill counts to photographing dead bodies with planted phones and weapons to cover up their actions.

The report also detailed a disturbing initiation ritual known as “blooding” where junior soldiers were sometimes forced to shoot prisoners as their “first kill”.

According to the Brereton report, the senior command was unaware of the war crimes that were being carried out. The crimes were actually committed and covered up by patrol commanders — who were generally lower-ranking sergeants and corporals, regarded as “demigods” by their juniors.

“While it would have been much easier to report that it was poor command and leadership that was primarily to blame for the events disclosed in this report, that would be a gross distortion,” the report said.

Several sections of the report had been redacted as they either contained classified security information or material that could compromise future criminal proceedings.

However, the report categorically states that 23 of the incidents of unlawful killing would qualify as “war crimes of murder” if accepted by a jury, while another two incidents would constitute “the war crime of cruel treatment”. But in every single case, investigators found that it “was or should have been plain that the person killed was a non-combatant.”

What happened after the report was released?

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced that a special investigator will be appointed to decide prosecutions based on the information in the report. Meanwhile, ADF Chief General Campbell has vowed to act on the report’s “shameful”, “deeply disturbing” and “appalling” findings.

Campbell said he had accepted all 143 recommendations made in the report, including a criminal investigation into the misconduct allegations against the 19 soldiers in question. He also suggested changes to the Australian army’s organisational structure.

The meritorious unit citation awarded to the special Operations Task Group rotations, which served in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2013, will be revoked, The Guardian reported.

The Australian government has also said that it will set up an independent oversight panel to ensure “accountability and transparency that sits outside of the ADF chain of command”.

According to The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, two soldiers were sacked soon after the release of the inquiry report.

Who were the 13 people who were served notices of likely dismissal?

The 13 special forces soldiers have not been identified, but they are separate from the 19 Special Air Service troops named in the report. They are believed to have been “accessories” or “witnesses” of the alleged murders, The Age reported.

Lieutenant General Rick Burr said that the soldiers have been issued “administrative action notices”, which would terminate their service unless they responded within a fortnight. “At this point in time no individuals have been separated from the Australian Defence Force,” he clarified, but refrained from clearly stating the number of soldiers who could be sacked.

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How has Afghanistan responded to the report?

The Afghanistan government has said that while the war crimes committed by the special forces soldiers were inexcusable, the report was a welcome step that could pave the way to justice, BBC reported.

In a tweet shared last week, the office of the President of Afghanistan acknowledged that PM Morrison had apologised to President Ashraf Ghani over a phone call.

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