More than 150 Australian defence personnel have been charged with serious criminal offences in military courts and tribunals over a four-year period, BuzzFeed News can reveal. But the nation's defence department wants to keep their identities secret.
Documents obtained under Australia's freedom of information laws reveal that since September 2014 the Directorate of Military Prosecution brought charges against 152 defence personnel across Australia’s army, navy and air force.
But while in an ordinary Australian court the names of the alleged offenders would generally be publicly accessible, the defence department's registrar of military justice, group captain Nina Harvey, has sought to suppress all of their identities.
Australia's military justice system is a quasi judicial system that operates outside of the ordinary criminal justice system, and is notorious for its opaque operation.
The offences vary in their severity, but include charges such as acts of indecency without consent, fraud, forcible confinement, destroying evidence, misuse of credit cards, threat to inflict grievous bodily harm, negligent performance of duty and assault occasioning actual bodily harm.
Eighteen of the matters led to not guilty findings, while 22 matters were withdrawn before trial by the directorate of military prosecution. Punishments for those convicted varied from small fines to reduction of rank and even imprisonment for the most severe cases.
The individuals accused include some low-serving members and intermediate ranks such as sergeants and lieutenants, but also officials ranked much higher, including one army major who was dismissed from the force after facing two charges of obtaining a financial advantage.
Harvey acknowledged in her decision letter to BuzzFeed News that Defence Force Magistrate proceedings are generally open to the public and are not subject to orders prohibiting the release of information.
She also said that “the persons concerned should reasonably have expected that some level of information would be open to public scrutiny".
But she also found that several “personal privacy" considerations weighed against disclosure, including that “the documents contain information which is 'known' (but not 'well known'); the details of the proceedings are known (but, again, not 'well known'); the information is not currently available from publicly accessible sources.
“The persons concerned would not reasonably have expected that all information would be open to public scrutiny; it is likely that the persons concerned would object to having all information open to public scrutiny; it is likely that the release of names would cause detriment or stress to those concerned; and there are no controls on further dissemination.”
Ultimately she concluded that “giving the applicant access to the names of the persons on trial is contrary to the public interest”, arguing that the slim details already released to BuzzFeed News satisfied the public interest without providing the names of those individuals subject to charges.
“I am of the view that any additional public interest in providing this information is significantly outweighed by the public interest of observing certain privacy protections, particularly in the case of those persons who were acquitted or who subsequently had their convictions and/or punishments overturned,” she wrote.
The defence department’s position on releasing the names is particularly odd, because all defence proceedings are generally publicly accessible. However, the department strongly regulates access to them, only providing lists of upcoming matters to journalists via email request, and only permitting access to hearings with a defence escort.
BuzzFeed News is challenging the matter with the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner.
On Thursday the ABC also reported that an investigation into US marines based in Darwin accused of sexual crimes had been quietly dropped by US and Australian authorities.
Recently the director of military prosecutions Jennifer Woodward called for a major review of the military justice system, writing in her 2016 annual report that there was a “level of dissatisfaction with the current state of the military discipline system”.
The military justice system has always sat uneasily alongside the judicial system. In 2009 the High Court struck down the Australian Military Court on the basis that it conflicted with the constitution and the role of the judiciary.
The Australian Defence Force has been plagued by a string of scandals involving misconduct by defence personnel.
Six men were sacked from the defence force in 2013 for their part in what was described as the "Jedi Council" group, where men exchanged footage of women engaged in sex acts without their consent.
Paul Farrell is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney.
Contact Paul Farrell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.