A Federal Court judge ruled yesterday afternoon that witnesses against former SAS soldier Ben Roberts-Smith can give evidence from Afghanistan. The witnesses are expected to corroborate allegations of war crimes committed by Roberts-Smith.
Roberts-Smith is suing Nine Newspapers (The Age, Sydney Morning Herald, Canberra Times) for defamation in the Federal Court case, to be heard in June. The Victoria Cross recipient objects to much of the newspapers’ breaking coverage of the SAS Afghan War Crimes story.
Roberts-Smith is suing for the imputation that, among other things, he “murdered an unarmed and defenceless Afghan civilian by kicking him off a cliff and procuring the soldiers under his command to shoot him.”
In their reporting, Nine journalists Nick McKenzie and Chris Masters allegedly implicated Roberts-Smith in a number of the most infamous war crimes committed by SAS soldiers. One allegedly involved Roberts-Smith “blooding a rookie” by ordering him to machine-gun an elderly man with a prosthetic leg.
He is then said to have taken the leg back to base to use as a “novelty drinking vessel,” in the terms of the case documents. The newspapers also say the soldier bashed Afghan prisoners and bullied junior SAS soldiers.
In their defence, made out on the grounds of the truth of their allegations, the newspapers are being allowed to view key evidence from the Brereton Afghan War Crimes Report. Released last November, the report made reference to the worst conduct in Australian military history, but was so heavily redacted that its details never became public.
Redacted material relating to Roberts-Smith was given to the former soldier so that he could respond to the allegations against him, and that material will now be seen by the old Fairfax newspapers. They will not, however, be able to see material that might implicate other former soldiers.
Roberts-Smith is also objecting to claims he committed domestic violence against a woman in a Canberra hotel. His ex-wife will testify in the trial, to be held in June.
“She has sworn an affidavit saying that Mr Roberts-Smith told her to lie about matters centrally relevant in these proceedings,” Nine’s lawyers told the court.
According to the AFR, Roberts-Smith has so far drawn $1.9 million on a line of credit from Kerry Stokes to pay for the defamation proceedings.
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Feature image courtesy of @jay_rembert via Unsplash.