As new details emerge of alleged war crimes committed by Australia’s special forces in Afghanistan, the regiment’s most powerful supporters are stepping up their campaign to defend the elite fighting force.
A charity co-founded by billionaire Kerry Stokes and backed by Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest has confirmed it is collecting donations for the legal fight of SAS soldiers who face prosecution over the alleged murder of Afghan civilians.
The SAS Resources Fund was set up after the Blackhawk helicopter disaster in 1996 that killed 18 soldiers in a training exercise in Townsville. But the charity’s chairman, Dr Grant Walsh, said it had decided to create a separate fund to raise money for the legal fees of soldiers accused of war crimes after “members of the Australian community” wanted to know how they could help.
“The fund established a discrete sub-fund for the specific purpose of receiving donations to enable access to necessary legal advice and representation as may be required,” he told Crikey.
“Any allocation of SAS Resources Fund resources for this purpose must still meet the criteria of associated hardship and will be underpinned by impartiality.”
The fund makes good on a promise by Stokes to stand by the SAS regiment following the release of the Brereton report last year, which found “credible information” Australian soldiers had murdered 39 Afghan civilians and prisoners. The Defence Department has stood down at least 10 members of the squad implicated in the inquiry’s findings.
Along with personally bankrolling the multimillion-dollar lawsuit of Australia’s most highly decorated special forces soldier, Ben Roberts-Smith, over allegations he committed brutal war crimes, Stokes has also suggested the fund, on which he serves as a trustee, could be used to help all SAS soldiers accused of war crimes with their legal battle.
The well-connected Perth charity has acted as a powerful lobby group for the elite fighting force. It was originally set up to help the families of SAS members killed in operations but now supports any member experiencing financial hardship. And with a number of high-profile West Australian personalities on the board, it has helped promote the regiment’s “unique and hazardous role” in the defence force.
This week, Victoria Cross recipient Roberts-Smith has launched his defamation trial against the Nine papers in the Federal Court, and Afghan interpreters hired by the Australian Defence Force say they are risking death as they wait years for their visas to be approved.
An ABC investigation has revealed fresh accounts of the deadliest alleged war crimes committed by Australia’s special forces in Afghanistan, which includes claims multiple civilians were allegedly killed as part of a cover-up.
Walsh says the fund’s support for accused soldiers did not go beyond the charity’s mandate: “Nobody has yet been charged or found guilty so any response from the [fund] demands impartiality.”