Nice to have a billionaire in your corner:
Kerry Stokes promises to stand by SAS
Seven West Media chairman Kerry Stokes wants to help members of the Special Air Service Regiment accused of war crimes, their families, and other members of the elite military unit through a special fund he helped establish, according to his spokesman.
Mr Stokes also plans to donate the Victoria Cross and other medals awarded to former SAS corporal Ben Roberts-Smith to the Australian War Memorial if Mr Roberts-Smith is unable to repay a loan to the media billionaire.
Mr Stokes is chairman of the memorial in Canberra.
Mr Stokes has agreed to cover Mr Roberts-Smith's legal costs in a defamation lawsuit he has initiated over articles accusing him of committing war crimes.
"The funding of his legal action is a private matter, however he has put his medals up as collateral on a loan and will relinquish them if required," Mr Stokes said.
"If this eventuates, I will donate his medals with Ben’s approval to the Australian War Memorial, as I have done so with other VCs and medals in the past."
The line of credit was first reported by The Australian Financial Review's Rear Window column on Monday. One source said it was worth about $1 million.
In addition to the Australian Victoria Cross, the highest award for bravery, Mr Roberts-Smith holds the Medal for Gallantry and a commendation for distinguished service.
The Victoria Cross was awarded for a battle in June 2010 in Kandahar Province when he put himself in the line of fire to allow other members of his patrol to get into a better position. He then stormed the enemy and killed two machine gunners.
Mr Stokes has a long connection to the SAS, which is based in his home town of Perth. He was a co-founder of the SAS Resources Fund, set up in 1996 following a night-time helicopter collision near Townsville that killed and injured 15 members of the unit and three from the Army Aviation Regiment.
In 2012, mining entrepreneur Andrew Forrest joined the board of the fund, which provides financial assistance to serving soldiers and their families, and ex-members of the regiment and their dependants when they suffer financial hardship, according to its website.
A spokesman for Mr Stokes said the fund may be used to support current and former members of the SAS during an investigation by a special prosecutorial unit in the Department of Home Affairs into the allegations that Australian soldiers executed 39 prisoners and civilians in Afghanistan during the war there.
He said the assistance could include help for legal and other costs, including mental health treatment, although the decision would have to be made by the fund, which is not controlled by Mr Stokes.
"He supports all SAS soldiers, not just Ben," spokesman Tim Allerton said. "It's the whole SAS community."
Mr Roberts-Smith is an executive for Channel 7 in Brisbane. He is suing Nine, which owns The Australian Financial Review, for reports in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald about his service in Afghanistan.
The chief of the Defence Force, Angus Campbell, said on Thursday that the Second Squadron of the SAS would be abolished and its name retired following the allegations.
Ben Roberts-Smith owes Kerry Stokes $1.9m
The head of the army, Lietenant General Richard Burr, was present at the SAS base in Perth on Thursday morning. He commanded the regiment in 2003 and 2004.
The identities of the 19 Australian soldiers accused of war crimes were redacted in the report, although General Campbell said their military honours could be revoked.
Mr Roberts-Smith's official biography states that he was a member of the SAS Second Squadron.
Any convictions could take years. Testimony provided by some 423 witnesses to the investigation is not admissible in court, and there is no certainty the tightly-knit special forces units will turn on each other in public trials.
There is also the possibility of future political interference. British governments obstructed investigations and prosecutions of war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to Human Rights Watch, a lobby group.
A six-year British investigation into the behaviour of military special forces in the Afghan war closed in 2020 without charging any servicemen, it said.
"Canberra needs to learn lessons from the UK's failed efforts to prosecute soldiers implicated in war crimes in Iraq," said Elaine Pearson, the director of Human Rights Watch in Australia.
Even the Australian investigators seem to appreciate that prosecutions may be difficult to achieve, citing problems in other Western nations that fought in the war.
"Even where the evidence is apparently strong and clear, pitfalls have been encountered, both political and popular," the report said. "It is predictable that Australian prosecutions could encounter similar obstacles.”