Australia's most decorated war veteran pictured with controversial Crusader's Cross in Afghanistan

·3-min read
The cross was originally photoshopped out by publications
The cross was originally photoshopped out by publications

Former Australian special forces soldier and accused war criminal Ben Roberts-Smith wore a Crusader’s Cross on his uniform while on duty in Afghanistan, with the symbol later digitally removed by defence officials in a widely distributed photo of the veteran.

Mr Roberts-Smith is currently suing three Australian newspapers for stories they published detailing alleged war crimes and other accusations against him.

The photo of the Victoria Cross recipient was released by Australia’s Department of Defence in early 2011 showing Mr Roberts-Smith wearing a blank patch on the front of his uniform after exiting a helicopter.

The symbol was worn by soldiers in the Medieval religious wars known as the Crusades, during which nominally Christian forces invaded predominantly Muslim countries.

The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age has obtained the original photo, which was taken on April 6, 2010, revealing Mr Roberts-Smith was in fact bearing the Crusader’s Cross.

Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith - Paul Kane/Getty Images
Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith - Paul Kane/Getty Images

Neil James, the Australia Defence Association's executive director told The Age that displaying the symbol was “wrong morally” and “counterproductive”.

A spokesperson for the defence department said it “does not condone or permit the use, display or adoption of symbols, emblems and iconography that are at odds with Defence values”.

Watch: Defence sources claim Ben Roberts-Smith instigated war crime

Australian economist and writer, John Quiggin, said the picture explains why western forces “lost in Afghanistan”.

“This picture sums it up. Crusaders were mass-murdering religious extremists, the ISIS of their day. Muslims haven't forgotten, and Defence can't airbrush their memories out of existence,” he said.

Mr Roberts-Smith has been accused of murdering civilians and unarmed prisoners, including an Afghan boy aged in his mid-to-late teens.  

He is also alleged to have killed an Afghan man at close range in 2009. The man had a prosthetic leg, which some Australian soldiers then used as a vessel for drinking beer.

Ben Roberts-Smith next to an unnamed soldier drinking from a prosthetic leg
Ben Roberts-Smith next to an unnamed soldier drinking from a prosthetic leg
Ben Roberts-Smith
Ben Roberts-Smith

In early June his lawyers told the Federal Court his former wife, Emma Roberts, had leaked photos of her ex-husband with soldiers drinking out of the prosthetic leg to the media.

The photograph of the soldier drinking from an apparent “war trophy” in an unauthorised bar in Afghanistan in 2009 was one of several obtained late last year by Guardian Australia. Another photo shows two soldiers dancing with the leg.

Taking property without the consent of the owner may be classified as pillaging, a war crime which carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison.

Later that month, it was revealed in court that every member of Mr Roberts-Smith's squadron was given an engraved beer glass replica of a prosthetic leg.

Mr Roberts-Smith claims he was defamed by a number of imputations in the reports after the newspapers published serious allegations about the death of another Afghan man, farmer Ali Jan, in the village of Darwan in September 2012.

The court has heard that Nine Entertainment Co, the publisher of two of the three newspapers being sued by Mr Roberts-Smith, will call 21 former and current special forces soldiers to testify in the trial.

Nine alleges Jan was kicked over a cliff by Mr Roberts-Smith during a raid, and that the soldier then executed him and covered it up with his colleagues.

On Tuesday, Afghan farmer Mohammed Hanifa gave evidence by video-link in the defamation case about the alleged war crimes.

Earlier this week Mr Hanifa told the court he recalled seeing a “big soldier” with “blue eyes” kick his relative down into a dry creek bed following an interrogation, then hearing a gunshot.

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