How the SAS war crimes inquiry unfolded


“He hasn’t got s—,” one SAS soldier boasted at a barbecue in Perth in 2017, according to others who overheard him. It would be alleged later by eyewitnesses that this soldier ordered the execution of prisoners in 2009. But those allegations would not come out for many months, well after a small clique of SAS soldiers banded together to plot how to discredit any allegations that might reach Brereton’s ears.

Smashing the code of silence

There were other reasons to be doubtful of Brereton’s prospects. Inquiries into war crimes in the US and UK had both collapsed under political pressure, including that brought by President Donald Trump. And in Canberra, defence had a well-founded reputation for burying bad news.

Even if SAS whistleblowers emerged – and that was a big if – it was uncertain if the quietly spoken, amiable Brereton, along with Defence Force chief General Angus Campbell, would ensure their stories were probed exhaustively. If those stories were then found to be corroborated, would they be relayed to police for possible prosecution? And would any of it be released to the Australian public?

Brereton’s trip to Afghanistan in July last year laid some of these unknowns to rest. By the time the judge arrived in Kabul, he had smashed the SAS code of silence. Multiple defence sources have confirmed that whistleblowers had already confessed on oath to executions or having witnessed their SAS soldier colleagues murder Afghan prisoners.

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On the ground in Afghanistan, according to local sources, the judge met villagers from the country’s south who further corroborated these stories.

The question of whether the public would ever be told of the shocking scale of the war crimes scandal was put to bed on Thursday morning. In a press conference to reveal Brereton’s key findings, Campbell excoriated the elite soldiers who allegedly committed war crimes – the suspected murders of 39 Afghan prisoners and civilians – betraying their SAS and Commando colleagues and the nation in whose name they served.

Campbell said Brereton had uncovered a “disgraceful and a profound betrayal of the Australian Defence Force’s professional standards and expectations”.

When Paul Brereton was appointed a judge of the Supreme Court of NSW in August 2005, he was walking in the steps of his father, Justice Russell Brereton, a judge who served for two decades on the same court.

Justice Paul Brereton, who has recommended Defence Force chief Angus Campbell refer 36 matters to the Federal Police for criminal investigation involving 23 incidents and 19 individuals.Credit:

The NSW bar noted the younger Brereton’s courage in fighting for justice as a barrister who “stepped forth where others may have feared to tread,” as well as his passion acting pro bono for military veterans.

Also like his father, Brereton became a senior officer in the reserves. But where his father had prosecuted Japanese soldiers for war crimes in 1945 – after Australia had helped win the war and the public were baying for the defeated Japanese to be held accountable – Brereton junior was given a far less straightforward task.

In April 2016, after a preliminary investigation by army consultant Dr Samantha Crompvoets had heard multiple disclosures by SAS and Commandos of shocking war crimes, Justice Brereton was tasked with finding more evidence to back up or discount the claims. Public pressure was inevitable, as the accused and their supporters sought to denigrate what became known as the Brereton Inquiry.

The war in Afghanistan was one that many Australians had lost track of. It had dragged on for 15 years after the September 11 attacks first led to a Western coalition invading the battle-weary nation. As the war’s progress stagnated, the bravery of individual elite special forces soldiers on capture and kill missions informed the public narrative pushed by defence and successive governments. Much of it was true.

But while Brereton’s inquiry would concentrate on the actions of a relatively small number of soldiers who allegedly went rogue – 25 soldiers are allegedly responsible for 39 murders – it would inevitably risk tainting Australia’s entire Afghan contribution.

‘Enormous challenges’

Justice Brereton has never spoken publicly about his work, but an annual report released by the Office of the Inspector-General in February gave the first glimpse of the judge’s methodology. He appointed a small team of trusted military lawyers, led by experienced barrister Matt Vesper. More lawyers and investigators could have expedited the probe, but a larger, less cohesive taskforce would be at risk of skating over key lines of inquiry. Instead, Brereton’s small team focused on building personal bonds of trust with SAS and Commando whistleblowers.

In his report released on Thursday, Brereton described “enormous challenges in eliciting truthful disclosures in the closed, closely-bonded, and highly compartmentalised Special Forces community, in which loyalty to one’s mates, immediate superiors and the unit are regarded as paramount, in which secrecy is at a premium, and in which those who ‘leak’ are anathema.”

“In such an environment, it is hardly surprising that it has taken time, opportunity, and
encouragement for the truth to emerge, and that it has not necessarily done so at the first
opportunity or interview, or fully. It is often not the first, or even the second, interview at which the story, either full or in-part, emerges; it takes time for trust to be established, and for the discloser’s conscience to prevail over any impediments.”

Most of Brereton’s witnesses had served in Afghanistan and many were also mentally scarred by their service.

Brereton also appointed an officer dedicated to witness welfare, especially for whistleblowers facing mental health pressures.

One of the few public whistleblowers, SAS medic Dusty Miller, described in August how Brereton not only painstakingly recorded his testimony about the alleged execution of an injured and unarmed Afghan farmer, but later personally called Miller to check on his mental state.

A PR offensive

From the start the Brereton inquiry was clear about its aims. Its focus would not be on “fog of war” or “heat of the moment” incidents. but only egregious and cowardly executions of Afghans prisoners.

No potential evidence was seen as out of reach. Brereton’s trip to Afghanistan in 2019, accompanied by federal police detectives, was aimed at corroborating the statements of what the federal police later described in a letter as SAS “eyewitnesses”.

While Brereton investigated, he refused dozens of media interview requests. But where Brereton stayed silent, his critics did not. Those sceptical of his exhaustive inquiry approach, or the fact that alleged war crimes were being probed at all, suggested inaccurately that minor “heat of the battle” incidents were under scrutiny.

Meanwhile, reporting in The Age and the Herald was naming one of Australia’s best-known Afghanistan veterans, Victoria Cross recipient Ben Roberts-Smith, as having participated in the execution of prisoners.

Former prime minister Tony Abbott urged Australians not to rush to judge soldiers who were “operating in the heat of combat under the fog of war”. Former defence minister Brendan Nelson, a close friend of Roberts-Smith, made similar comments.

Ben Roberts-Smith, middle, after receiving his Victoria Cross in 2011.

Ben Roberts-Smith, middle, after receiving his Victoria Cross in 2011.Credit:ADF

Roberts-Smith himself hired a team of lawyers and an expensive public relations firm, run by Sue Cato and employing ex-journalist Ross Coulthart, to counter the serious war crimes allegations he vehemently denies. Seven West Media chairman Kerry Stokes, a backer of Roberts-Smith who employed him as a senior manager in 2015, funded a defamation action against The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, while Roberts-Smith’s defamation lawyer, Mark O’Brien, made a formal but false complaint that the Brereton inquiry was biased and leaking information.

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Brereton demolished O’Brien’s unfounded claims in a forensic online report published by the Office of the Inspector-General, but not before they were published on the front page of a national newspaper. Roberts-Smith more recently joined the fray himself, releasing a statement that sought to portray Brereton’s inquiry as little more that a rumour collection exercise, rather than a forensic investigation based on thousands of files, videos and photos and hundreds of interviews conducted on oath with soldiers and officers who fought in Afghanistan.

In September 2019, a now former reporter from The Australian, Paul Maley, launched a ferocious attack on Defence for defending the time Brereton was taking to collect his evidence.

“Ask the Defence Force why it is taking so long and you’ll get an answer about the complexity of the inquiries, the transnational nature of the inquiry, the fact the material is secret,” wrote Maley. “Don’t believe a word of it.”

These media critics were swinging in the dark, unaware of what Brereton was actually doing and apparently blind to the possibility that rogue soldiers trained in secrecy and counter-surveillance were working hard to defeat his inquiry.

‘No turning back’

Efforts to derail the probe were failing, and others gradually spoke up in Brereton’s defence, led by former SAS captain turned Liberal politician Andrew Hastie. Hastie’s stance risked upsetting some of his former SAS comrades but created vital political support for Brereton. The defence top brass also backed the judge, sources said, led by General Angus Campbell. By the end of 2019, multiple Special Forces operators had confessed to Brereton that they had executed prisoners, according to these soldiers’ supporters.

“There was no turning back,” said one senior defence figure.

Throughout 2020, fresh confessions were still being made. But it wasn’t until Thursday morning that the full scale of the Brereton inquiry’s findings were made clear, with allegations of 39 murders and 19 current or former soldiers to face criminal investigation and the possible stripping of their medals. He reported patrol commanders “blooding” young soldiers by forcing them to shoot a prisoner to achieve their first kill, and carrying “throwdowns” – weapons to be placed with the bodies of dead villagers so that in photographs they appeared as combatants.

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The decision to refer soldiers facing the most serious allegations to police reflects Brereton’s cautious judicial approach. Other judges running commissions of inquiry have named offenders in their final reports, after deciding that the risk of prejudicing a jury in a criminal trial that may never eventuate is outweighed by the need to inform Australians about matters of grave public interest.

Defence insiders say that inherent in Brereton’s decision not to name any soldier is his strong desire not to prejudice any future trials. This is suggestive of a belief that individual accountability for alleged war crimes that have shamed the nation should ultimately play out in a criminal court before a jury, rather than via Brereton’s own assessment of a person’s conduct.

It also suggests that criminal trials of special forces soldiers are likely to occur over the coming years – grim news indeed for those who have long bayed for the scandal to be quickly buried.

If you are a current or former ADF member, or a relative, and need counselling or support, contact the Defence All-Hours Support Line on 1800 628 036 or Open Arms on 1800 011 046.

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Anatomy of an outbreak: How the Ruby Princess nightmare unfolded


As Ros Torrance smiled at the camera on the balcony of her luxury suite aboard the Ruby Princess, she had an inkling something wasn’t quite right.

The $600 million cruise ship ticked all the boxes for Ms Torrance and her husband’s holiday: a dozen restaurants, casino, bars, pools, mini-golf, a theatre and live entertainment every night.

It was late February and COVID-19 was still weeks away from being declared a pandemic but, as the cruise went on, she started to worry.

“Everyone was talking about it. My husband and I were very careful,” she said.

The couple dined only in the exclusive Club Class dining room.

“We didn’t go to the buffet to eat,” she said.

Ms Torrance was lucky: she was on the ship weeks before the infamous Ruby Princess cruise that has become the single largest source of COVID-19 infections in Australia.

Ruby Princess passenger Ros Torrance and her husband loved going on cruises.(Supplied)

In the final days of her trip, she thought it was unusual to hear announcements asking passengers with a fever to come to the medical centre.

“Then they made an announcement that the New South Wales health authorities would not be letting us off when we docked,” she said.

“They would be coming on board and seeing people that were unwell and that nobody would be disembarking until they were happy,” she said.

Why New South Wales Health officials boarded that ship to check passengers but allowed thousands of passengers off the next Ruby Princess cruise is just one of the questions now being examined by a Special Commission of Inquiry.

Cruise ship passengers disembark from the Princess Cruises owned Ruby Princess at Circular Quay in Sydney.
At least 850 passengers and crew from the Ruby Princess have contracted COVID-19 and 24 people are dead.(AAP: Dean Lewins)

As Ms Torrance waited to disembark on March 8, she noticed the ship was being cleaned.

Tracey Temple and her mother were standing on the wharf below waiting to board. Their cruise had been delayed for hours and gossip was spreading fast that NSW Health was on board.

“I heard that they were fumigating,” Ms Temple said.

“I panicked and went and tried to find somebody from the cruise ship.”

Alarmed, she found a crew member.

“I said to her, ‘I would like to ask you a question. I am a kidney and pancreas transplant patient. I want to know if it’s safe for myself and my mother to get onto this cruise?’

“She said that the cruise ship would not let one passenger, let alone all passengers, be put at risk if it wasn’t safe to sail,” Ms Temple said.

Passenger Tracey Temple and her mother Leanne onboard the Ruby Princess.
Passenger Tracey Temple and her mother Leanne enjoyed their time on board the Ruby Princess before Tracey became infected.(Supplied)

Ms Temple and her mother would soon join the hundreds of passengers on other Princess-branded ships who became infected with COVID-19.

“As far as I’m concerned, they put the mighty dollar first and they never put our safety first.”

The Ruby Princess wasn’t Princess Cruises’ first encounter with COVID-19

Just five weeks before the Ruby Princess embarked on its ill-fated journey, its sister ship the Diamond Princess found itself at the centre of a major deadly outbreak.

In late January, the ship sailed from Japan to Hong Kong. A passenger who got off there later tested positive for COVID-19.

It took the company nearly two days to tell the 2,666 passengers the news.

Melbourne woman Suzanne D’Silva and her family heard the captain announce a previous passenger had tested positive.

They felt assured the situation was under control.

Suzanne D'Silva and her family on board the Diamond Princess
Suzanne D’Silva and her family on the Diamond Princess cruise ship before they were forced into their rooms to quarantine for two weeks.(Supplied)

“We had no idea what was about to hit us,” she said.

After the announcement, cruise life continued: packed theatres remained open and guests kept visiting the buffet-style restaurants for meals.

Suzanne and her family celebrated a birthday in one of the restaurants that night.

The next day, the D’Silva’s holiday came to an abrupt halt when the ship docked in Japan.

Passengers were told they would be held under quarantine in their rooms for the next 14 days under an order from Japan’s Ministry of Health.

Diamond Princess passengers were quarantined in their rooms for 14 days.
Diamond Princess passengers were quarantined in their rooms for 14 days.(Four Corners)

Japanese Infection Control Specialist Professor Kentaro Iwata boarded the ship to observe the authorities’ handling of the outbreak.

He was horrified by what he found.

“I don’t think there was any strategy. I think the scheme was to contain everybody,” Professor Iwata said.

“I think the operation at the Diamond Princess was a failure.

“They allowed the spread of the disease inside the cruise ship and they were not being mindful about the fact that many passengers were elderly people who are susceptible to severe diseases.”

An aerial photo shows cruise ship Diamond Princess in Yokohama City
Cruise ship the Diamond Princess in Yokohama City amid an outbreak of the coronavirus.(AP: Yoshitaka Nishi)

A week after quarantine began, Suzanne D’Silva’s daughter was diagnosed with COVID-19.

“You’re enclosed, you’re breathing in this air. The food is coming open. It could be anywhere,” she said.

Three of the four members of the D’Silva family joined more than 700 people on board the Diamond Princess who contracted COVID-19.

The company encouraged crew and guests to share images with #princessproud as the quarantine dragged on.

Some passengers were confined to windowless cabins, only allowed out once a day to see sunlight.

Social media campaign #princessproud
Princess Cruises attempted to get on the front foot after the Diamond Princess disaster, running a positive social media campaign #princessproud.(Four Corners)

Carnival assured people it was safe to cruise after Diamond Princess disaster

Princess Cruises is part of the world’s largest cruise conglomerate, Carnival Corporation, which includes nine brands and over 100 ships in its fleet.

Despite the disaster on board the Diamond Princess, the company was determined to continue sailing.

At the end of February, Carnival Corporation’s chief medical officer, Dr Grant Tarling, reassured passengers it was safe to cruise.

“We’ve learned a lot from the world’s top experts and have stepped up our health protocols even more,” he said.

But less than a week after that message was posted on social media, the company was hit with a second major COVID-19 outbreak.

In early March, 21 people aboard the Grand Princess, off the coast of California, tested positive to the virus. The ship was stranded for weeks while authorities scrambled to work out how to manage the outbreak.

Infographic showing different cruise ships.
Carnival Cruise Corporation owns the Princess fleet which has been three major outbreaks of coronavirus on board.(Four Corners)

By March 8, after an hours-long delay, the Ruby Princess set sail from Sydney’s Circular Quay on its ill-fated journey.

Passengers settled into their holiday, enjoying theatre performances and a Rod Stewart impersonator and dining in the dozen restaurants on board.

Ms Temple remembers the mood on board shifting four days into the trip.

Entertainment on board the Ruby Princess
Entertainment on board the Ruby Princess was a highlight for the guests.(Supplied)

“We were watching the news and we didn’t know until we were on the ship that it had been classed as a pandemic. Then of course, you panic and you think, ‘Oh my God, you know, there’s no way you can get off’.”

Princess Cruises announced it would halt all new cruises for the next 60 days. In a video announcement, president Jan Swartz posed the question on everyone’s mind.

Things were about to get worse.

Virus spreads rapidly on the Ruby Princess

Welcome sign in New Zealand for passengers of the Ruby Princess.
Welcome sign in New Zealand for passengers of the Ruby Princess.(Supplied)

As the Ruby Princess continued on its journey around New Zealand, some on board began to fall ill. Ms Temple and her mother were among them.

It was nothing serious, they thought; just a dry cough and upset stomach.

“I wouldn’t go to the doctor because they charge you like a wounded bull. I just put it down to a transplant thing, I didn’t ever have it cross my mind that it was COVID-19.”

On March 14, the ship docked in Napier and passengers spread across the town, visiting shops and taking bus tours. Some 24 locals would later test positive for the virus.

Tracey Temple (second left) and her mother Leanne (far right) in Napier.
Tracey Temple (second left) and her mother Leanne (far right) in Napier.(Supplied)

The Ruby Princess couldn’t test for COVID-19 on board but doctors could take viral swabs for processing on shore.

When the ship docked in Wellington the next day, five samples were tested for the virus. All came back negative.

In mid-March, the New Zealand and Australian governments announced a ban on all incoming cruise ships. The Ruby Princess headed back to Sydney early.

Passengers from the Ruby Princess disembarked in Wellington and Napier in New Zealand.
Passengers from the Ruby Princess flooded tourist attractions in Wellington.(Supplied: Diane Fish)

On the way back, the ship’s senior physician, Dr Ilse Von Watzdorf, wrote in an email to NSW Health: “It seems we are in the early stages of an influenza A outbreak.”

But the message being delivered to concerned passengers was very different.

“The steward that comes and cleans your room. He kept saying ‘no, we’re clear. This ship is good, we are free. We don’t have to worry.'”

The Ruby Princess was required to send logs with the number of sick passengers to Federal authorities.

The first report showed 53 people were sick and 10 had a temperature.

Over the next two days, those numbers more than doubled.

A picture of the Ruby Princess foyer taken by passenger Diane Fish who later tested positive to coronavirus.
A picture of the Ruby Princess atrium taken by passenger Diane Fish, who later tested positive to coronavirus.(Facebook: Diane Fish)

NSW Health makes risk assessment based on out of date details

NSW Health also wrote to the ship, requesting further information about sick passengers.

On the morning of March 18, the ship’s doctor reported 104 people had presented to the medical centre with “acute respiratory illness” but only 36 guests, or 0.94 per cent of those on board, had “influenza-like illness”.

It was this figure, of just less than 1 per cent, that led NSW Health to classify the ship as “low-risk”. But the department knew some passengers were in isolation and had been swabbed for COVID 19.

What NSW Health didn’t know was that the number of sick people on board had continued to climb.

The ship’s doctor later told the Ruby Princess Inquiry that she was very busy and had forgotten to send through the details of more unwell passengers and crew who had come forward later that day.

On the ship’s final night at sea, passengers mingled on board, oblivious to the risk posed by the virus.

The ship’s atrium was filled with passengers for a farewell party.

Shortly afterwards, on shore in Sydney, a Carnival Australia Port Agent called 000 to request an ambulance for two passengers on board.

She told the operator staff would need to wear protective gear because both had “been tested for coronavirus”.

That information triggered a late-night decision by the NSW Port Authority to deny the ship pilotage.

An hour later, that decision was overturned after the head of the Port Authority spoke to a senior manager at Carnival Australia.

He reassured her that the ambulances were not called for COVID-19 reasons and that NSW Health had determined the ship was low-risk.

At 2:30am, the Ruby Princess docked in Sydney Harbour and the two ill passengers were rushed to the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.

A Carnival staffer handed 13 COVID-19 swabs to a pathology courier. Three, including the two taken by ambulance to hospital, would later test positive for the virus.

On board the ship on the night of March 18, passengers slept, unaware of the drama unfolding around them.

The fateful farewell

Passengers disembarked early that morning.

American Travel Agent Diane Fish led a tour group of 10 people off the cruise.

Crew from the Ruby Princess lined the decks to farewell passengers as they disembarked at Sydney Harbour.
Crew from the Ruby Princess lined the decks to farewell passengers as they disembarked at Sydney Harbour.(Supplied)

“It was a long line of crew members with their hands up,” she said.

“So you’re doing this high-five all the way down the ship and I’m thinking, “Oh, my God. I just touched 50 people”.

When she returned to Miami, Ms Fish tested positive to COVID-19 along with 6 out of her 10-person tour group.

Travel agent Diane Fish
American travel agent Diane Fish contracted COVID-19 on the Ruby Princess but said she would cruise again. Next time she would bring hand sanitiser, wipes and a mask.(Four Corners)

At least 850 passengers and crew have contracted COVID-19 and 24 people are dead.

A Special Commission of Inquiry and a police investigation are now trying to get the bottom of who is responsible.

Ms Temple blames Princess Cruises for not cancelling the trip.

Princess Cruises senior vice-president for the Asia-Pacific, Stuart Allison, insisted the company had fulfilled all of its requirements under NSW and federal laws.

“Even so, our onboard team had taken no chances, they required guests who reported flu-like symptoms to [remain in] cabins,” he said in a video released the week after the ship docked.

“The medical team was asked to provide swabs. Our guests could disembark because that was the official government process at the time.”

Regardless of who is to blame, Ms Temple said she will never be getting on a cruise ship again.

“My opinion is that they should put it [Ruby Princess] somewhere out in the middle of the ocean and sink it,” she said.



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