Army chief Ken Gillespie has rejected calls for defence to intervene on behalf of three Australian soldiers facing charges including manslaughter and dangerous conduct.
More than 20,000 people have signed an online petition calling on Lieutenant General Gillespie and Governor-General Quentin Bryce to intervene by cancelling the prosecution proceedings.
But General Gillespie said the independence of the Director of Military Prosecutions should be respected.
“To undertake any course of action that is disrespectful, and not supportive, of this process would be to undermine the integrity of the military justice system,” he said in a statement.
Acknowledging media commentary about the cause, he said the army must not be party to pressure being applied by people outside defence.
“The army is simply not above the law,” he said.
General Gillespie said he would be completely inappropriate to engage in conduct that might influence the outcome of charges.
That included public comment, in any capacity, about the merits of the charges; or by vilifying the prosecutor; or by otherwise influencing, directly or indirectly, the course of the prosecution including by joining in petitions.
As of 1pm (AEDT) on Wednesday, 20,029 people had signed the petition, linked to the website of Sydney radio broadcaster Alan Jones.
It was first posted on September 10, but the bulk of comments appear to have been posted since Tuesday, when Opposition Leader Tony Abbott accused the government of stabbing the soldiers in the back.
Petition author Paul Thomas Harrison describes himself as a retired chief petty officer with the Royal Australian Navy with 25 years’ experience.
In a preamble, he said a prosecution would paralyse troops in the field and prevent them from defending themselves and their colleagues.
The coalition’s defence personnel spokesman Stuart Robert said the petition’s support was a reflection people were upset with the legal action, although he said he supported the independence of Director of Military Prosecutions Lyn McDade.
In September, Brigadier McDade approved the prosecution of three commandos on charges stemming from a night-time raid in 2009 on a residential compound in Afghanistan’s Oruzgan province, in which six civilians died, including five children.