Soldier saw Ben Roberts-Smith machine-gun unarmed Afghan with prosthetic leg to death, court told | Ben Roberts-Smith
An SAS soldier witnessed Ben Roberts-Smith machine-gun an unarmed prisoner with a prosthetic leg to death, in direct contradiction of the Victoria Cross recipient’s evidence, a court has been told.
The soldier – anonymised on the witness list as Person 14 – told Roberts-Smith during a clandestine meeting in 2018 he had seen him shoot the unarmed man in a village called Kakarak in Uruzgan province in 2009, the federal court heard on Thursday.
The alleged murder of the disabled man has become a central allegation against Roberts-Smith: the prosthetic leg was later souvenired by another soldier and used as a drinking vessel at the Australian soldiers’ unofficial bar on base, the Fat Ladies’ Arms.
Roberts-Smith, one of the most decorated soldiers in Australian military history, is suing the Age, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Canberra Times for defamation over a series of reports he alleges are defamatory and portray him as committing war crimes, including murder.
The newspapers allege that during a raid on a compound known as Whiskey 108 in Kakarak on Easter Sunday 2009, Roberts-Smith dragged the man with the prosthetic leg outside of the compound, threw him to the ground, and shot him with a machine-gun “10 to 15 times”.
Roberts-Smith says he killed the man, but that he was an insurgent, running outside the compound, and carrying a weapon. Roberts-Smith insists the man was a legitimate target, a threat to soldiers’ safety, and was killed within the laws of war.
Roberts-Smith’s defamation trial heard from Nicholas Owens, acting for the newspapers, that Person 14 told Roberts-Smith “he was going to be truthful and honest about what he saw in Afghanistan”, and that he agreed with the newspapers’ defence document that alleges Roberts-Smith murdered the man.
Person 14 is listed as a witness for the newspapers and is set to appear at the trial.
Owens said Person 14 told Roberts-Smith “he would not lie on the stand and that the truth was the only thing that would protect him”.
Person 14 told Roberts-Smith he had seen him machine-gun the man with the prosthetic leg.
“It’s going to be like that is it?,” Roberts-Smith allegedly replied.
In the conversation put before the court, Person 14 told Roberts-Smith he had not spoken to the media about the events at Whiskey 108, but had spoken to the inspector general of the Australian Defence Force who was conducting an investigation into war crimes committed by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan.
Discussing evidence given to the inspector general is unlawful.
Owens said Roberts-Smith told Person 14: “Be careful who you fucking talk to.”
Roberts-Smith responded in court Thursday: “That is a complete lie.”
Roberts-Smith has maintained that Person 14 was too far away, and behind a compound wall, to be able to see his engagement with the slain man.
Person 14 allegedly told Roberts-Smith: “You machine-gunned that guy.”
In a forensic cross-examination during his 10th day in the witness box, Roberts-Smith admitted in court he kept possession of secret and classified documents in his home unlawfully.
Owens put it to Roberts-Smith “you deliberately kept secret and classified material at your home knowing it could imperil Australia’s national security”.
“That’s a stretch too far,” Roberts-Smith said.
“I believe it’s the wrong thing to do. I accept that. To state that it endangers our national security is a stretch too far.”
Journalists and whistleblowers have been charged by police for the offence of possessing secret and classified documents.
Roberts-Smith also told the court he failed to provide relevant documents during discovery in the lead-up to the defamation trial out of “naivete” of the legal process.
Roberts-Smith said he “zero-wiped” the hard-drive of his laptop computer, just five days after being instructed not to by his lawyers, and six days after 60 Minutes broadcast allegations he had buried USBs with classified documents and photos from Afghanistan.
He said he planned to trade the computer in and felt he needed to wipe it to protect his security. Previously, he told the court, he had poured petrol on computers and burned them to destroy hard-drives, but he wanted to trade this computer in.
On Thursday afternoon, Roberts-Smith was interrogated about a mission at the Chora Pass in 2006, an action for which he would ultimately receive the Medal for Gallantry after a fierce firefight against an approaching Taliban force.
Owens put it to Roberts-Smith that he had misrepresented his actions at Chora Pass – in particular around the killing of a young man he believed to be a “spotter’, or forward scout, for the Taliban. The court heard Roberts-Smith was inconsistent in his reporting of the action and sought to silence those who might have undermined his version of events.
“You did not want the Australian public to find out you’d won a medal for shooting an unarmed teenager?” Owens put to Roberts-Smith.
“Not only do I find that a disgusting comment, it’s completely false,” Roberts-Smith replied.
The court also heard about an alleged bullying campaign against another soldier – Person 1 – who, the court was told, Roberts-Smith derided as a “useless cunt” and a “coward”.
Roberts-Smith said on Thursday he never disparaged his comrade in those terms but agreed he had told others Person 1 was an incompetent soldier.
The court also heard that on USB sticks in Roberts-Smith’s possession was an image of a penis with wings attached and the words “Welcome to Tizak”. The image, believed to have been drawn by another soldier, was an apparent parody of the SAS emblem – a winged dagger bearing the motto “Who dares wins”.
Roberts-Smith is suing the Age, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Canberra Times for defamation over a series of reports published in 2018. He alleges the reports are defamatory because they portray him as someone who “broke the moral and legal rules of military engagement” and committed war crimes, including six allegations of murder.
The 42-year-old has consistently denied the allegations, saying they are “false”, “baseless” and “completely without any foundation in truth”. The newspapers are defending their reporting as true.