Twenty-one current and former soldiers of Australia’s most elite military regiment will face unprecedented court hearings in the newspaper’s defense case being indicted by veteran Ben Roberts-Smith.
Most important points:
- Nine’s Legal Team Said Conspiracy Between The 21 Soldiers Is “Impossible”
- The media company described them as “honorable men”
- Mr Roberts-Smith’s legal team says he has been the subject of “tall poppy” syndrome
During the first week of the high-stakes defamation trial, the Sydney Federal Court not only got an insight into Roberts-Smith’s risky battles against Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan, but also a taste of how Nine Entertainment Co. will defend that led to the case.
Roberts-Smith claims he was vilified by a series of stories published in 2018 by The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Canberra Times, including allegations of unlawful killing.
Barrister Nicholas Owens SC, for Nine, said many of the 21 military witnesses had never spoken to each other about what they saw on broadcasts.
“Conspiracy between them, we will admit, is simply impossible,” he said during an opening speech.
Owens formulated the case as a choice between “two diametrically opposed stories that cannot be reconciled”; one, he suggested, must be a fabrication.
Nine’s defense documents contain allegations that Mr Roberts-Smith was involved in six unlawful murders, bullied colleagues from the Special Air Services Regiment (SAS), and committed an act of domestic violence against a woman in 2018.
Mr Owens described the SAS witnesses as “honorable men who could no longer keep silent”, adding that it took courage to speak out in such an organization.
Roberts-Smith’s legal team claims he was a “great poppy” whose reputation as an “exceptional soldier” was destroyed by colleagues outraged at his success and aided by “gullible journalists” who published dishonest work.
The 42-year-old spent much of his first two days on the witness stand, telling in vivid detail about his missions in Afghanistan, some risking his own life to further his team’s progress.
Roberts-Smith dismissed charges that he was complicit in an Easter 2009 murder in which a “newbie” soldier was ordered by another colleague to execute an unarmed man to become “bloody”.
Equally ridiculous, he said, was the claim that he carried a man with a prosthetic leg over his shoulder after clearing a site before firing him 10-15 times with a machine gun.
But it was “particularly disgusting,” said the veteran, to be charged with murder during a 2012 mission in which he swam across the Helmund River to track down a suspected insurgent named Hekmatulla, who had previously killed three Australians in a surprise attack.
“You would think people would be proud of someone who is willing to do that,” he told the court yesterday.
Nine withdrew that claim in their defense case shortly before trial.
A central allegation in the coverage was presented to Mr Roberts-Smith yesterday just before the court entered closed session yesterday.
Nine articles allege that while on a mission in Darwan in 2012, a man named Ali Jan was handcuffed, led to a cliff by Mr Roberts-Smith and kicked over, before being executed on the creek bed.
Court documents show that Nine is unsure who shot Ali Jan, but alleges that Mr. Roberts-Smith was part of an agreement with another colleague to kill him.
Mr Roberts-Smith has told the judge he has never killed an unarmed prisoner and being accused of doing so left him in disbelief.
“To be honest, you feel like you’re in a bloody nightmare,” he said.
He said he had legitimately been involved that day in fighting a so-called Taliban “spotter” who was hiding in a cornfield, but denied there was any truth to the Ali Jan allegation.
The veteran also described a change in “attitude” among his colleagues after he was awarded the Victoria Cross in 2010 for a fierce battle in Tizak.
He said the award brought him pride, but also misfortune and pain because it “placed a target on his back” and led to him being belittled by fellow SAS soldiers.
Mr Roberts-Smith’s evidence continues Tuesday.