During a raid on a Taliban compound, special forces soldier Ben Roberts-Smith grabbed an unarmed, older Afghan male by the scruff of his shirt, forced him to kneel and uttered two words to a colleague.
That’s according to the testimony of a serving special forces soldier, who on Wednesday said he witnessed the incident in Afghanistan’s Uruzgan province in 2009.
Mr Roberts-Smith, one of a handful of Australian recipients of the Victoria Cross since 1970, denies the claim, suggesting it’s “outrageous” fabrication and part of attacks from envious associates out of “pure spite” that he was awarded the VC.
The former SAS corporal, 43, is suing The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Canberra Times, alleging he was unlawfully defamed by claims he committed alleged war crimes in Afghanistan. The newspapers have pleaded a truth defence.
The serving soldier testifying on Wednesday, referred to as Person 41, is the first Australian-based witness called for the media outlets in the defamation trial.
He was involved in the 2009 mission to a Taliban compound nicknamed Whiskey 108, located in Uruzgan province.
Person 41 described stepping over the rubble of a bomb-destroyed wall to enter a courtyard where Mr Roberts-Smith and other soldiers were standing.
He entered an adjoining room, finding opium and what he believed was bomb-making equipment, before returning to the courtyard to find Mr Roberts-Smith, one other soldier and a squatting, older Afghan man.
Mr Roberts-Smith and the other soldier, codenamed Person Four, asked to borrow his suppressor.
“I thought it was a strange request but I complied … thinking he must need it because he’s going to go into the tunnel,” Person 41 told the Federal Court.
But that thought changed, he said, when Person Four fitted the suppressor to his gun and walked with Mr Roberts-Smith back towards the Afghan.
Mr Roberts-Smith grabbed the Afghan man “by the scruff” of his shirt, marched him to Person Four and kicked out the Afghan’s legs to force him to kneel, facing away.
“RS pointed to the Afghan and said ‘shoot him’ and stepped to the side,” Person 41 told the court.
The witness said he stepped back inside the opium room – “I didn’t wish to witness what was about to happen” – and heard a single, suppressed shot from a M4 carbine rifle.
He waited another “15 or so seconds” before walking back into the courtyard, where only Person Four remained.
“There was a dead Afghan at his feet.”
As far as Person 41 could remember, nothing was said as Person Four returned the warm suppressor to its owner.
Mr Roberts-Smith has previously testified the suggestion he ordered the man’s death “shocked” and upset him, as “my professionalism was being targeted by these individuals and such an outrageous claim was being made.”
He also labelled “completely false” an alternate claim that Person Four shot the man at Whiskey 108 on the orders of another SAS operator, codenamed Person Five.
The marquee defamation trial resumed on Wednesday in Sydney after a six-month hiatus caused by a lockdown in NSW and hard border in Western Australia.
While some journalists can follow a live web stream, it cannot be publicly accessed out of concern for potential “inadvertent disclosure” of national security information by witnesses, the judge has ruled.
Instead, the court will upload a redacted recording of each day’s hearing to YouTube within 24 hours.
The newspapers propose to call two dozen witnesses – about 10 of whom live in Western Australia.
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