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Action on Armed Violence condemns the imprisonment of whistleblower David McBride for exposing Australian military unlawful killings

Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) strongly condemn the imprisonment of David McBride, a whistleblower who played a crucial role in exposing allegations of Australian war crimes in Afghanistan. McBride has been sentenced to five years and eight months in jail for sharing military secrets, which led to the exposure of unlawful killings by Australian forces.

David McBride, a former military lawyer, pleaded guilty to the charges on the eve of his trial last year after his defence was weakened by legal rulings. McBride has consistently maintained that he felt a moral obligation to reveal the wrongdoing.

His actions ultimately contributed to a landmark inquiry that found evidence of Australian forces unlawfully killing 39 Afghans during the conflict.

McBride’s case has ignited widespread outrage in Australia, highlighting concerns about inadequate whistleblower protections and the slow pace of prosecuting soldiers accused of committing war crimes under the Australian flag. At 60 years old, McBride admits to providing a significant cache of documents to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), driven by concerns over the conduct of military commanders and the perceived “over-investigation” of troops. These documents formed the basis of the 2017 “The Afghan Files” reports, which revealed unprecedented details about the operations of Australia’s elite special forces and included allegations of war crimes.

Prosecutors accused McBride of seeking “personal vindication” and argued that his methods of gathering, storing, and leaking the documents endangered Australia’s national security and foreign policy. However, McBride’s lawyers sought leniency, arguing that he acted with “honourable” intentions and a sense of duty.

During sentencing in Canberra, Justice David Mossop acknowledged McBride’s “good character” but criticized his perceived obsession with his opinions. Mossop described the sharing of military secrets as “a gross breach of trust” and noted McBride’s lack of contrition. McBride will be eligible for parole after 27 months.

The sentencing prompted an emotional response from the public gallery, with some shouting “shame on you” at the judge. McBride, accompanied by his support dog, embraced his friends and family before being taken into custody. He remained resolute, asserting that his leak was justified as it exposed serious misconduct. Addressing supporters, including relatives of Julian Assange and fellow whistleblower Jeff Morris, McBride declared, “I did not break my oath to the people of Australia and the soldiers that keep us safe.”

McBride’s Whistleblowing Journey

David McBride’s journey to becoming a prominent whistleblower is marked by a series of dramatic events. After graduating from Oxford University with a law degree, he served in the British army before exploring various careers, including private security, reality TV, and politics. Eventually, he joined the Australian Defence Force (ADF) as a legal officer, completing two tours in Afghanistan in 2011 and 2013. It was during these tours that McBride began to suspect that military commanders had crossed ethical lines.

Suffering from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), McBride grew increasingly convinced of the need to expose the wrongdoing. Over 18 months, he covertly copied hundreds of sensitive documents, smuggling them home in a backpack. After failed attempts to address his concerns through internal complaints, he turned to the police, the defence minister, and eventually the press.

The documents he provided to ABC journalist Dan Oakes contained evidence of war crimes, prompting the groundbreaking “The Afghan Files” reports. These revelations included concerns about a “warrior culture” within the force and allegations of covering up unlawful killings, including the shooting of a six-year-old boy in 2013.

Legal and Public Reaction

McBride’s actions led to a significant legal and public reaction. He was identified as the source of the leak and fled to Spain before returning to Australia to face charges. The Australian Federal Police (AFP) raided his apartment and discovered classified documents. Despite public pressure, the government decided not to prosecute the journalists involved but proceeded with the case against McBride.

The findings of the Brereton report, which confirmed credible evidence of unlawful killings by Australian forces, further fueled the debate. However, despite the mounting pressure, the government refused to drop the case against McBride. Advocates argue that his prosecution highlights the inadequacy of whistleblower protections and discourages others from coming forward.

Daniela Gavshon, Australia director at Human Rights Watch, criticized the outcome, stating, “It is a stain on Australia’s reputation that some of its soldiers have been accused of war crimes in Afghanistan, and yet the first person convicted in relation to these crimes is a whistleblower, not the abusers.”

The Need for Stronger Whistleblower Protections

The case of David McBride underscores the urgent need for stronger whistleblower protections in Australia. Current safeguards are criticized for being weak and imposing onerous requirements on whistleblowers, making it easier for authorities to target them. McBride’s failed legal defenses and the judge’s dismissal of his public interest argument illustrate the challenges faced by whistleblowers.

Independent MP Allegra Spender echoed these concerns, calling McBride’s sentence a “chilling message to whistleblowers across Australia” and emphasizing the need for better protections.

As McBride begins his sentence, his case continues to resonate, serving as a stark reminder of the risks faced by those who dare to speak out against injustice. The calls for reform and justice for whistleblowers like McBride are likely to persist, highlighting the ongoing struggle for transparency and accountability in the military and beyond.

As Dr. Iain Overton, Executive Director of Action on Armed Violence, says of the sentencing: “David McBride’s imprisonment is a profound miscarriage of justice. His courageous actions exposed serious wrongdoings that should have prompted reform and accountability within the military, not retribution against the whistleblower. This sentence sends a dangerous message to those who might consider speaking out against misconduct, undermining the very principles of transparency and justice that our societies are built upon.”