Detailing the results, Defense Chief General Angus Campbell said the investigation found evidence that members of the Australian Special Forces killed prisoners, farmers or other civilians, and apologized unreservedly to the Afghan people for any wrongdoing.
The report “found there was credible information to support 23 incidents of the alleged unlawful murder of 39 people by 25 members of the Australian Special Forces, primarily the Special Air Service Regiment,” Campbell told reporters.
Some of the alleged perpetrators still serve in the military while others have left the armed forces. The investigation recommended that the 23 incidents, involving 19 people, be referred to the police for criminal investigation.
In a letter accompanying the investigation report, James Gaynor, the Inspector General of the Australian Defense Forces, called the nature and extent of the alleged misconduct “very confronting”, noting that there were other allegations that members of the Australian military have treated people under their control with cruelty.
“None of these alleged crimes were committed during the heat of battle,” he wrote. “The alleged victims were non-combatants or no longer combatants.”
During the investigation, New South Wales Supreme Court Justice Paul Brereton and his team interviewed 423 witnesses – some on multiple occasions – and examined more than 20,000 documents and 25,000 images.
The team “encountered enormous challenges in obtaining truthful disclosures in the closed, tightly knit and highly compartmentalized Special Forces community,” the report notes in explaining the length of the investigation.
Large parts of the 531-page report were redacted because of classified security information or because they contained material that could jeopardize future criminal proceedings.
The investigation concluded that the 23 incidents of unlawful homicide would be “the war crime of murder” if accepted by a jury, and two other incidents “the war crime of cruel treatment”. Some incidents involved a single victim and others several people, and took place between 2009 and 2013.
He also found that weapons had been planted on some of the victims, while junior soldiers were sometimes forced to shoot prisoners for a “first murder” as part of a so-called “blood initiation”.
The report indicated that it had probably failed to uncover all the wrongdoing that had been committed during the years under investigation and recommended the establishment of a mechanism to receive and assess any future allegations of war crimes in Afghanistan.
“We embarked on this investigation in the hope that we could report that the war crimes rumors were unfounded,” the report said, noting that all but two of the team members were members of the defense force. “None of us wanted the result we got. We are all diminished by it.
A special investigator, who was appointed last week, will now determine whether there is enough evidence to move the prosecution forward.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison warned last week that the report would contain “difficult and difficult news for Australians”.
The Reuters news agency reported that Morrison spoke with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani before the release.
Nicola Gage of Al Jazeera, reporting from Canberra, said that while any criminal case could take years, the Australian Defense Force should establish a fund to compensate the families of the victims.
The Australian military was deployed alongside forces of the United States and other allies in Afghanistan following the attacks of September 11, 2001.
In the years that followed, a series of often heartbreaking reports emerged about the conduct of its elite special forces units – ranging from a prisoner shot down for space in a helicopter to the assassination of a six year old child in a house raid.
The United States is also under investigation for possible war crimes in Afghanistan after the International Criminal Court (ICC) authorized an investigation earlier this year. The tribunal will also examine the allegations against Afghan soldiers and armed Taliban fighters.