Off-the-record conversations broadcast from a Sydney courtroom show a rare glimpse into the origins of a high-stakes libel case by war veteran Ben Roberts-Smith.
As the trial entered the seventh week of this year, a serving soldier from the Special Air Service Regiment (SAS) emerged as a key source for two reporters.
Called by Nine Entertainment, publisher of the newspapers sued by Mr. Roberts-Smith, the senior soldier, under the pseudonym of Person 7, recalled that his first contact with Chris Masters at the end of 2015 had been approved by the Defense Forces for a book that the journalist was writing.
But the Federal Court heard his off-the-record conversations include extensive comments about Mr. Roberts-Smith, with whom the witness worked in Afghanistan during some of his 11 deployments there.
The court also heard from a second soldier witness, who claims he saw Mr Roberts-Smith “execute” an Afghan while on a mission in 2009.
Mr Roberts-Smith claims allegations of unlawful killings, intimidation and domestic violence published in 2018 articles by The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Canberra Times were false.
“Watch life go by”
In the days following the death of Sergeant Blaine Diddams in Afghanistan in July 2012, Person 7 was on deployment preparing his gear.
He told the court he heard Mr Roberts-Smith behind him.
“Before this trip is over, I’m going to strangle a man to death with my bare hands, I’m going to look him in the eye, and watch the life drain from his eyes,” Person 7 claims to have heard Mr. Roberts-says Smith.
Last year, Mr Roberts-Smith described it as “ridiculous” and demonstrating “a flair for the dramatic”.
In extensive evidence, Person 7 recounted other missions where he alleged the veteran used unnecessary force on unarmed Afghan detainees and accused Mr. Roberts-Smith of long-term intimidation of other soldiers SAS.
The two were both at the Battle of Tizak in 2010, for which Mr Roberts-Smith was awarded the Victoria Cross, and Person 7 testified that while he was proud of his own efforts, he did not think that he deserved to be recognized.
But neither did Mr. Roberts-Smith, he told the court.
“I can’t say that I regret it”
In his three days on the witness stand so far, Person 7 has been accused in cross-examination of being bitter, twisted and “obsessed” with Mr Roberts-Smith’s VC.
He revealed he was one of the anonymous SAS soldiers who spoke to Nine’s 60 Minutes – in breach of Defense Force policy – for a 2019 episode about the charges against Mr Roberts-Smith.
This included an allegation also in newspaper reports that Mr Roberts-Smith kicked an unarmed Afghan detainee over a cliff in the village of Darwan in 2012, which the veteran denies.
The witness said he was ‘reaffirming’ existing allegations about the program and was not ‘pressured’ after initially refusing.
He described a desire to act as an ‘inside voice’ after what he called a ‘campaign of intimidation’ by Mr Roberts-Smith against former colleagues as an investigation into allegations from Afghanistan was taking place behind closed doors.
“I’m not proud of it, however, I can’t say I regret it,” he told the judge.
“I wouldn’t do it again.”
Person 7 said they were told about a “blatant” allegation, that they took it seriously and wanted it to be heard.
Person 7 admitted to talking to colleagues about his views on Mr Roberts-Smith’s VC and mentions of the award appear in Mr Masters’ notes, which were read out in court.
The veteran’s attorney, Arthur Moses SC, said they included comments that the quote contained “lies and embellishments”.
“That’s my opinion,” the witness said.
They also discussed Mr Roberts-Smith’s father, wife, Channel 7 job, charity work and personality.
One recorded that the veteran was “not a bright guy”, while another compared him to a “frilly-necked lizard” due to his reaction when threatened.
Person 7 insisted that he was answering Mr. Masters’ questions and giving opinions based on his experience. But some of it could be called “petty, immature and childish gossip”, he conceded.
During questioning, Mr. Moses repeatedly offered that it was a “character assassination” of Mr. Roberts-Smith, which Person 7 rejected.
He denied being “corroded by hatred” and seeking to “tarnish” the reputation of the veteran.
“You are so angry that you did not receive an award for Tizak, you pushed allegations to blacken his name,” Mr Moses said.
“That’s completely untrue,” replied the witness.
“Are we coming to watch an execution”
Earlier this week, a former SAS soldier codenamed Person 24 recalled a 2009 mission to a Taliban compound, where Mr Roberts-Smith is accused of committing unlawful murder.
Person 24 told the court that he saw Mr. Roberts-Smith walk about 15 meters outside the building grabbing an Afghan by the pants or shirt, dropping him to the ground and firing an eight machine gun burst into him. ten bullets in the back.
“I remember saying to (a colleague) Person 14 at the time, ‘have we just witnessed an execution,'” he said.
In cross-examination, he said the incident was “right in my line of sight”, but admitted the alleged shooter’s face was camouflaged.
However, Person 24 thought he could still tell it was Mr Roberts-Smith based on the person’s height and “curvy” gait, saying he thought he was was an “exhibited performance”.
Mr Roberts-Smith previously told the court he killed an armed insurgent who was circling the corner of the compound.
The court heard the man’s prosthetic leg ended up being used as a drinking vessel by the soldiers and the 24 person admitted he had no problem participating in the ‘dark humour’.
He told the court that the dead man was an “facilitator” of the bomb.
“He was potentially a target to kill before,” Person 24 said.
The ex-soldier, who was medically released in 2017 and still considers himself addicted to alcohol, said giving evidence was ‘tough to digest’ and he disagreed that Mr. Roberts-Smith assumes his current position.
But he said he wanted to support his friends who had been “negatively affected” by their time at SAS and their experience in the courtroom.
His voice trailed off when he mentioned a soldier codenamed Person 4, who he said had had his life “turned upside down.”
The trial continues Monday.