Victoria Cross winner Ben Roberts-Smith has denied at his high-profile defamation trial giving “completely disingenuous” evidence about an SAS mission in Afghanistan in 2009 during which two Afghan prisoners were allegedly killed.
Mr Roberts-Smith, 42, is suing the publishers of the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Canberra Times in the Federal Court over articles from 2018 he says paint him as a war criminal who broke the moral and legal rules of military engagement.
He denies all the claims against him, while the media outlets argue that the allegations are true.
On Monday, Mr Roberts-Smith was cross-examined by the publishers’ barrister, Nicholas Owens SC, about an April 2009 SAS operation in Uruzgan province where the war hero says two insurgents were killed near a compound.
The barrister submitted that at the compound, known as Whiskey 108, two unarmed Afghans — a man with a prosthetic leg and an old man in a white robe — were brought out of a tunnel and taken prisoner, or “PUCed”, as persons under control.
“There were no men in the tunnel,” Mr Roberts-Smith said.
Mr Owens suggested that another SAS soldier, codenamed Person Four, then shot the older Afghan in the head with a silenced firearm on the orders of another SAS operator, codenamed Person Five.
“That is completely false,” Mr Roberts-Smith said of the respondents’ version.
Mr Roberts-Smith also labelled as false Mr Owens’ claim that after that alleged killing, he carried the Afghan with the fake leg out of the compound and shot him with a “extended burst” of machine gun fire, before asking another SAS soldier “are we cool?”
He also denied panicking after the alleged killing due to potential “ISR” – intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance – of the incident.
“It’s a ridiculous assertion,” Mr Roberts-Smith said.
The court heard that Mr Roberts-Smith appeared in photos with people drinking from the slain Afghan’s prosthetic leg and that the decorated veteran owned two engraved glass replicas of the leg that were given to members of his SAS squadron.
“There’s two of them in a box somewhere,” he said of the glass legs.
The trial has previously heard that another soldier, codenamed Person Six, took the insurgent’s prosthetic leg from the mission at Whiskey 108 and that it was subsequently used as a drinking vessel at the SAS pub in Afghanistan known as the “Fat Ladies Arms”.
The trial has previously been told that Mr Roberts-Smith never drank from the leg.
His legal team argues that the man with the fake leg was not a “defenceless” Afghan, but was in fact an armed fighting-age male insurgent.
Earlier, Mr Owens put to the former corporal that modifications to his evidence about details of the mission were due to him not being able to keep his “story straight”, describing one of his answers as “completely disingenuous”.
“No, it’s the truth,” Mr Roberts-Smith said.
The start of Monday’s trial was delayed until the afternoon until Mr Roberts-Smith received the results of a weekend COVID-19 test, which came back negative.
Other witnesses expected to appear at the trial include ex-SAS soldiers, Afghan villagers as well as federal MP Andrew Hastie and former Liberal politician Brendan Nelson.
Mr Roberts-Smith’s lawyers say their client has lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in income from the allegedly defamatory articles that have smashed his reputation.
The trial continues on Tuesday in closed court before Justice Anthony Besanko.