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Australian war crimes whistleblower David McBride jailed for six years

In News, World
May 14, 2024

Former Australian Army lawyer David McBride has been sentenced to five years and eight months for revealing information about alleged Australian war crimes in Afghanistan.

Supporters of McBride have long expressed his concern that the Australian government was more interested in punishing him for revealing information about war crimes rather than the alleged perpetrators.

“It is a travesty that the first person imprisoned in relation to Australia’s war crimes in Afghanistan is not a war criminal but a whistleblower,” said Rawan Arraf, the executive director of the Australian Centre for International Justice, in a statement released after the sentencing.

“This is a dark day for Australian democracy,” Kieran Pender, the acting legal director of the Melbourne-based Human Rights Law Centre, said in the same statement, noting McBride’s imprisonment would have “a grave chilling effect on potential truth-tellers”.

McBride, who arrived at the Supreme Court in Canberra, Australia this morning with his pet dog and surrounded by supporters, will remain behind bars until at least August 13, 2026, before he is eligible for parole.

In an interview with Al Jazeera before his trial began last year, McBride said he had never made a secret of sharing the files.

“What I want to be discussed is whether or not I was justified in doing so,” McBride stressed.

The former Australian Army lawyer’s sentencing comes almost seven years after Australian public broadcaster, the ABC, published a series of seven articles known as the Afghan Files based on information McBride provided.

a man speaks into a microphone
McBride has attracted support from Australian human rights advocates, journalists and politicians who fear his sentencing has consequences for freedom of speech [Mick Tsikas/EPA-EFE/]

The series led to an unprecedented Australian Federal Police raid on ABC headquarters in June 2019 but details published in the series were also later confirmed in an Australian government inquiry, which found there was credible evidence to support allegations war crimes had been committed.

Last year, an Australian judge found Australia’s most decorated soldier Ben Roberts-Smith was “complicit in and responsible for the murder” of three Afghan men while on deployment. The finding was made in defamation proceedings brought by Roberts-Smith against three Australian newspapers who had reported on the allegations against him.

Roberts-Smith has appealed against the defamation ruling.

Al Jazeera has written to the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Office of the Special Investigator for information on the current status of Australian government inquiries into alleged war crimes but did not immediately receive a response.

‘Greyer, murkier, messier’

McBride’s sentencing comes four months after Dan Oakes, one of two ABC journalists who wrote the Afghan Files, was awarded an Order of Australia Medal, with the citation simply saying he was recognised “for service to journalism”.

Oakes was quoted by the ABC at the time as saying, “I’m very proud of the work we did with the Afghan Files and I know that it did have a positive effect in that it helps bring some of this conduct to light.

“If [this medal] is at least partly due to that reporting then I do feel some sense of satisfaction.”

But Oakes, who has reportedly not spoken to McBride in six years, later told the ABC’s Four Corners programme that the story was “much greyer and murkier and messier than people appreciate”.

While Oakes and McBride have not stayed in touch, the whistleblower has attracted the support of a wide range of Australians, including human rights lawyers, senators and journalists.

a tall man in a suit stands near a person wearing court robes
Ben Roberts-Smith was ‘complicit in and responsible for the murder’ of three Afghan men, an Australian judge found in 2023 [Dan Himbrechts/EPA]

On Tuesday, supporters gathered outside the court, with speakers on McBride’s behalf including Australian Greens Senator David Shoebridge.

It would be “an indelible stain on the Albanese Labor government” if McBride “walks into the Supreme Court this morning” and is then “taken out the back to jail”, Shoebridge said before the sentencing hearing.

In a joint statement from several Australians issued after the hearing, Peter Greste, the executive director of the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom, said that “press freedom relies on protections for journalists and their sources”. He also noted that Australia had recently dropped to 39th in the global press freedom rankings.

Greste is a former Al Jazeera reporter who was jailed with two colleagues in Egypt from 2013 to 2015 on national security charges brought by the Egyptian government.

“As someone who was wrongly imprisoned for my journalism in Egypt, I am outraged about David McBride’s sentence on this sad day for Australia,” said Greste.

McBride is one of several Australians facing punishment for revealing information, while high-profile Australian Julian Assange will face hearings on his potential extradition from the United Kingdom to the United States later this month.

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