Australia’s defence department says an investigation has been launched into photos showing senior special forces soldiers drinking out of a dead Taliban fighter’s prosthetic limb and carrying it on the battlefield.
The move comes after the Guardian obtained images showing a trooper carrying the leg attached to a backpack with other photos showing soldiers drinking beer from the prosthetic at an unofficial bar – the Fat Lady’s Arms – that was set up at their special forces base in Afghanistan in 2009.
A defence spokesperson said on Thursday: “Army is inquiring into the matter.”
The move came as federal senator Rex Patrick called for commanders who failed to stop the practice of drinking alcohol from the leg to be held to account.
The Guardian pictures show the prosthetic leg of a fighter who had been killed during an assault on two compounds and a tunnel complex at Kakarak in Uruzgan province in 2009. Following the battle, the leg was allegedly taken from the corpse of the fighter.
Additional photographs obtained by the Guardian show a soldier from the unit with the leg strapped to his backpack. In one picture, another soldier is seen pointing at the leg on the backpack with a quizzical expression.
Responding to the pictures, Patrick, a former Navy submariner, said: “Maintaining standards and developing good culture is the responsibility of those in command.” “I would hope that the perpetrator has been dealt with, and the same is true for those in command who either turned a blind eye to the conduct or stood silent,” the senator said.
Patrick, who spent just over 10 years in the navy, mostly in submarines, said he supported Australian troops in the conduct of operations when mistakes were made in the heat of battle.
“[But] the circumstances of this photo are not heat of battle and the soldier involved has exercised poor judgment. These sorts of actions chip away at the sort of standards and culture that the public want and expect from ADF members.”
Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) sources have said high-level officers knew about the leg which was mounted on a board alongside a German-style Iron Cross and kept with 2 Squadron on deployments. Officers were reported to have seen soldiers drinking from the leg and are rumoured to have been involved in the practice themselves.
The defence force has previously refused to say if anyone was under investigation over drinking from the leg or the move to remove it from the battlefield.
Under section 268.81 of the commonwealth Criminal Code Act the taking of property without the consent of the owner may be classified as the war crime of pillaging, which carries a penalty of 20 years in jail, former military lawyer Glenn Kolomeitz said.
The latest pictures also brought criticism from former Australian army officer and federal MP Luke Gosling.
“These latest images are concerning. It’s not the conduct we want our Australian defence force to be getting up to overseas in our name,” he told the Guardian.
“Australia is a country that respects the Geneva conventions, human rights, and the rule of law, and no one is exempt from those laws. It is important that we root out these highly problematic cultures. We are, and want to continue to be, a responsible and law-abiding member of the international community.”
The drinking pictures have been condemned by Afghans and human rights groups.
“It is the most disgusting, shocking and horrific image I’ve ever seen,” Hayatullah Fazly, a member of the provincial council in Uruzgan, told the Guardian, speaking on the phone from his office in Tarin Kowt.
“It is more painful when you consider that [the soldiers] were here to help us and make us feel safe. It’s shameful.”
The publication of the images follows the release last week of a redacted four-year inquiry into Australian special forces conduct in Afghanistan that linked soldiers to the murders of 39 prisoners and civilians and cruel treatment of two other Afghans.
It also found “credible information” that 25 serving or former ADF personnel were involved in serious crimes or at least had been accessories to them. None of the alleged victims were combatants.
A special investigator’s office has been set up to prosecute the alleged crimes detailed in the report.
Zabiullah Farhang, a spokesman for the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, said the photos showed Australian soldiers “had no respect for the life of Afghans here”.
“This a true violation of international human rights and also it is a war crime,” he said earlier this week. “We welcome the Australian prime minister’s efforts in creating an [office] to investigate it, this will help in discovering more crimes.”
• Anyone affected by the Brereton report should call Hayat Line on 1300 993 398, a free and confidential line for those going through difficulties. In Australia, support and counselling for veterans and their families is available 24 hours a day from Open Arms on 1800 011 046 or www.openarms.gov.au and Safe Zone Support on 1800 142 072 or www.openarms.gov.au/safe-zone-support