CANBERRA, Australia: Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said the government would appoint a special investigator to probe and consider prosecutions over war crimes by its soldiers in Afghanistan.
In recent years, reports have emerged alleging killings of civilians and prisoners by Australian soldiers.
A report into findings from a four-year military inquiry will be published next week.
The prime minister warned that it would bring “difficult and hard news for Australians”.
“There is a significant number of incidents or issues to be investigated further and that investigation will be inherently complex,” he said on Thursday.
PM confirms CDF will release report into alleged war crimes next week and the appointment of a Special Investigator within Home Affairs: “This will be difficult and hard news for Australians to hear, I can assure you” #auspol @SBSNews
— Brett Mason (@BrettMasonNews) November 12, 2020
Morrison said the office of the special investigator would have powers to examine the Australian Defence Force (ADF) report and nominate cases for criminal prosecution.
Since 2016, the ADF has held a closed-door inquiry into misconduct allegations linked to its elite soldier units serving in Afghanistan.
Last week it was revealed the inquiry had investigated 55 incidents between 2005 and 2016 and heard evidence from 336 witnesses.
While the majority of the allegations remain unknown, Australian media outlets have previously published details of some cases.
These include accusations of unlawful killings of Afghan civilians and mistreatment of prisoners of war.
In March, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation aired footage which showed an Australian Special Air Service (SAS) soldier shooting an unarmed Afghan man in the head.
Morrison said the report had been handed to the government last week.
On Thursday, he defended Australia’s military personnel overall, but said there had been serious cases where “expectations and standards may not have been met”.
He suggested that the report had uncovered serious problems within the ADF and announced that a new panel would oversee a transformation of its culture.
“It is the environment, it is the context, it is the rules, it is the culture and the command that sat around those things,” he said.
“And if we want to deal with the truth of this, we have to deal with the truth of that.”
Morrison played down the possibility that some of Australia’s soldiers could be called before the international criminal court, saying the allegations needed to be dealt with through the Australian justice system.
He said the report would deliver “difficult news” but Australia’s international partners should be assured by the process announced on Thursday that Australia would “deal with it honestly”.
Morrison said the office of the special investigator – to be established within the Department of Home Affairs – would address the criminal matters outlined in the inspector general’s report.
The office would investigate those allegations, gather evidence and, where appropriate, refer briefs to the commonwealth director of public prosecutions.
Australian federal police would normally be the body to prepare a brief of evidence to be considered by prosecutors, but Morrison said: “This is no normal set of circumstances.”
Defence Minister Linda Reynolds said the independent oversight panel would provide “accountability and transparency that sits outside of the ADF chain of command and outside of government”.
Australia maintains an operation of around 400 soldiers in Afghanistan as part of ongoing peacekeeping efforts with the US and other allies.