Australia

Ben Roberts-Smith denies killing captured man as he gives evidence in defamation case

Ben Roberts-Smith leaves the Federal Court in Sydney on Thursday, 10 June, 2021. Source: AAP

Victoria Cross recipient Ben Roberts-Smith has told his defamation trial he'd spent his life fighting for his country and did everything he could "to do it with honour".

Ben Roberts-Smith has labelled as "ridiculous" claims he killed a captured Taliban insurgent with a prosthetic leg in an SAS operation in Afghanistan in 2009.

Mr Roberts-Smith, 42, is suing the publishers of the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Canberra Times in the Federal Court for defamation over media reports from 2018 that he says paint him as a criminal who breached the moral and legal rules of military engagement.

Australia's most decorated soldier is also suing over reports alleging he assaulted a woman in a Canberra hotel room.

He denies all the claims against him, while the publishers advance a truth defence.

On Thursday, Mr Roberts-Smith was called as the first witness at the trial and was questioned by his barrister Bruce McClintock SC about an SAS operation in April 2009 on a Taliban compound known as Whiskey 108 in Uruzgan province.

The court heard Mr Roberts-Smith, carrying a belt-fed machine gun, was one of several SAS soldiers who entered and cleared the compound after they were requested to assist the Australian infantry in a battle against the Taliban.

After the SAS patrol cleared the building Mr Roberts-Smith spotted outside the compound an insurgent holding a bolt-action rifle.

"I engaged that individual," Mr Roberts-Smith told the court.

He rejected claims he shot the insurgent between 10 and 15 times, saying he fired two rounds and also denied claims that he carried the man, calling that assertion "ridiculous".

He said he later discovered that the killed insurgent had a prosthetic leg, but rejected claims put to him in court that the man had been a "person under control".

"It makes me feel very, very disappointed," he told the court of that claim.

"That's so far from the truth it's not funny ... it's ridiculous."

Ben Roberts-Smith leaves the Federal Court in Sydney on Thursday, 10 June, 2021.
Ben Roberts-Smith leaves the Federal Court in Sydney on Thursday, 10 June, 2021.
AAP

The court heard he later saw another soldier, codenamed person six, take the insurgent's prosthetic leg that was subsequently used as a drinking vessel at the SAS pub in Afghanistan known as the "Fat Ladies Arms".

Mr Roberts-Smith said he never drank from the leg but he didn't have a problem with "gallows humour" as a way for soldiers to desensitise from the horrors "outside the wire".

In his evidence, Mr Roberts-Smith also rejected claims of bullying while in the SAS and denied punching and kneeing an Afghan male in an operation in March 2010.

"Did that happen?" Mr McClintock asked him.

"No," Mr Roberts-Smith replied.

Court was adjourned late in the afternoon when he broke down in tears recounting details of the SAS action at the 2010 Battle of Tizak for which he was awarded Australia's highest military honour, the Victoria Cross.

Earlier in the day, he described claims by the respondents critical of his war service as "devastating".

"I spent my life fighting for my country and I did everything I possibly could to do it with honour," he told the court.

"It breaks my heart actually."

The court heard Mr Roberts-Smith joined the SAS after serving with the Australian army in East Timor in 1999 and did six tours of Afghanistan with the elite fighting force from 2006 to 2012.

He said his family had a military history stretching back to Gallipoli which he took great pride in.

After leaving the defence force in 2013 he started a consulting firm and is now on leave from his employer Seven West Media.

At the start of the day's proceedings, the respondents' barrister, Nicholas Owens SC, said none of the alleged murders at issue involved split second decisions in the "heat of battle" or the "fog of war", asserting that each of the alleged victims was a person under control.

He said there would be testimonial evidence from 21 current and former SAS members as well as several Afghan villagers that would show Mr Roberts-Smith's accounts were implausible, describing the witnesses as "honourable men".

Mr Roberts-Smith's legal team has so far depicted their client as a courageous and self-sacrificial soldier subject to a lying campaign by "bitter people" and failed soldiers jealous of his military success and VC.

The trial continues on Friday.

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