By Phil Mercer
June 7, 2021
SYDNEY – Australia’s most decorated Afghanistan veteran will deny alleged war crimes Monday at the start of his high-stakes defamation trial against one of the country’s biggest media companies. Ben Roberts-Smith will seek to prove he was unfairly portrayed in newspaper stories as having broken the moral and legal rules of war. He is seeking damages in Australia’s Federal Court from Nine Entertainment Co. and three journalists.
Newspaper reports in 2018 alleged Ben Roberts-Smith murdered a man in Afghanistan and encouraged his colleagues to drink beer from his victim’s prosthetic leg. He was also accused of killing an unarmed Afghan shepherd by kicking him off a cliff and ordering his fellow soldiers to shoot him.
The former Special Air Service Regiment (SAS) trooper, who received the Victoria Cross, Australia’s highest military honor, in 2011, has denied any wrongdoing. He said articles published by The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Canberra Times newspapers portrayed him as a war criminal who disgraced his country by murdering Afghan civilians. Roberts-Smith said the stories were “baseless” and “flawed.”
His lawyer told the hearing Monday that he was “an exceptional soldier” but was the victim of “dishonest journalism” and “corrosive jealousy and lies.”
The trial in Sydney is expected to hear from about 60 witnesses over the next ten weeks.
Current and former members of Australia’s special forces are scheduled to give evidence anonymously. Other witnesses will testify via a video link from a law firm in Kabul.
Associate professor Ben Wadham, a military historian from Flinders University, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp., the case goes to heart of Australia’s conduct during times of conflict.
“It has brought into tension that question about: does everything and anything go in war, or do we actually have some responsibility to these higher values, and shouldn’t we be upholding them?” Wadham said.
Last November, a landmark inquiry into Australian special forces in Afghanistan found “credible evidence” of the “murder” of 39 prisoners, farmers, or other civilians.
A lengthy investigation examined claims of unlawful killings and other possible breaches by Australia’s elite special forces in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016.
Ben Roberts-Smith left the army in 2013 and is currently the general manager of the Seven Network, a media company, in Brisbane and regional Queensland.