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Police officer’s Bali holiday selfie with Ben Roberts-Smith and Zachary Rolfe leads to questions from Queensland force

Queensland police say they will look into a social media photo that shows an officer on holiday with Ben Roberts-Smith and Zachary Rolfe, on which Rolfe appeared to comment: “Just a couple of cops/murderers and war criminals Havin a lovely afternoon in the sun”.

The picture of the trio, apparently taken at Finns Beach Club in Bali, was recently posted on the private Instagram account of the serving Queensland police officer. It has been circulated beyond the officer’s immediate group and passed on to Guardian Australia.

It is unclear when the photo was taken, but Roberts-Smith was photographed at the same club and wearing the same shorts in late August.

Using the name “zaccourtier”, a person using what appears to be Rolfe’s private account made an apparent joking reference to “cops/murderers and war criminals” under the image.

The now-deleted account had used a selfie of Rolfe as its profile picture, and had an additional display name of “Zac R”. “Courtier” is Rolfe’s mother’s birth name.

Rolfe was found not guilty in March last year of the murder of Kumanjayi Walker. Rolfe had shot the Indigenous man three times during a bungled arrest in Yuendumu, north-west of Alice Springs, on 9 November 2019.

In a civil judgement by federal court justice Anthony Besanko earlier this year, the judge found – on the balance of probabilities – Roberts-Smith was complicit in the murder of four unarmed prisoners while serving in Afghanistan. This included kicking a handcuffed man, a father of six named Ali Jan, off a cliff before ordering him shot dead.

The Queensland officer replied to the comment on the Instagram post by saying “just a couple of brothers having …” followed by a beer emoji and handshake emoji.

The Queensland police service (QPS) was asked by Guardian Australia whether it was aware of its officer’s post and whether it complied with its social media guidelines.

The QPS guidelines make clear that officers are responsible for any posts, and that “despite tight personal privacy settings, in reality there is no such thing as a private social media post, and control of same may be lost very quickly and easily”.

The guidelines also state, among other things, that an officer must not “engage in activities online, posting comments or uploading images that would bring the Service into disrepute, [or] undermine the Service standing as a trusted member of law enforcement and intelligence communities, [or] are inconsistent with Service values”.

The guidelines say an officer must not “post comments identifying themself as a member of the force.”

A spokesperson said the force was “aware of the social media post mentioned, however the officer remains on leave and inquiries will be made upon their return to work”.

“As such it would be inappropriate to comment at this time.”

The Queensland officer did not respond to questions.

In an email to Guardian Australia, Rolfe said “your continued interest in my affairs is rather flattering”, but declined to comment on whether he made the comment and if he had, why, or why the zaccourtier account appeared to have been deleted after he was contacted by Guardian Australia.

Asked about the post and the comments, of which screenshots were provided, Rolfe accused the Guardian of erroneously revealing its “source” by showing the screenshots, claiming that they identified the profile photo of a serving NT police officer, whom he named.

That officer referenced by Rolfe did not provide the image to Guardian Australia and has had no contact with its journalists.

“Should you choose to move forward with this piece, I’d urge you to include this correspondence in its entirety,” Rolfe said in his email.

“It would be enlightening for readers to know you pursued a story even after being made aware of the risks you inadvertently imposed on your source’s reputation and career, particularly given potential breaches of protocol on their end.

“If, however, you neglect to incorporate this email and still decide to run your piece, I’ll have no qualms about sharing our exchange with other media outlets.”

Rolfe’s lawyer Luke Officer did not respond to a request for comment.

Guardian Australia also sought comment from Roberts-Smith.

The pair have known each other for more than a decade, according to a statement that Rolfe’s mother, Debbie Rolfe, provided as part of Roberts-Smith’s defamation case.

The Rolfes met Roberts-Smith in a Canberra store in 2011, according to the statement.

“We spoke and ‘connected’ straight away in part because Zach had recently joined the Australian Army,” Debbie Rolfe said.

She described Roberts-Smith as a mentor to her son.

“In particular, Ben has been very kind and helpful towards Zach, with Ben having acted as a mentor to him.”

Roberts-Smith, Australia’s most decorated living veteran and a recipient of the Victoria Cross, sued the Age, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Canberra Times for defamation over a series of 2018 articles he alleged falsely portrayed him as a criminal who “broke the moral and legal rules of military engagement” and “disgraced” his country and its army.

He denied all wrongdoing and said the allegations against him were motivated by spite and jealousy.

However, in June, Besanko dismissed his application in its entirety, finding the newspapers had proved the allegations to a civil standard.

Roberts-Smith is appealing that decision to the full bench of the federal court, to be heard in February.

Rolfe is expected to give evidence next month before an inquest into Walker’s death.

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