Ben Roberts-Smith defamation trial postponed until November due to Sydney Covid crisis

·2-min read
<span>Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP</span>
Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Ben Roberts-Smith’s already delayed defamation trial has been postponed further by Sydney’s escalating Covid-19 outbreak, with hearings adjourned until November.

The high-profile trial had been delayed for a year by the initial coronavirus pandemic outbreak, but Sydney’s current and worsening outbreak has forced another three-month hiatus.

In the Federal Court on Monday morning, Justice Anthony Besanko said he was unwilling to move the former SAS trooper’s defamation trial to another state. The Australian government solicitor’s office told the court it would take between two and three months to “replicate the current security and other arrangements in another state”.

Related: ‘Even if I die I will tell the truth’: witness speaks out at Ben Roberts-Smith defamation trial

The commonwealth, too, said hearing sensitive evidence from former SAS soldiers could not safely be heard via videolink.

Roberts-Smith, a recipient of the Victoria Cross, is suing three newspapers over articles published in 2018 which he says are defamatory and alleged he committed war crimes while on deployment in Afghanistan.

Besanko said with Sydney’s stay-at-home orders in place until at least the end of August, and the likelihood that interstate borders would remain shut beyond then, the trial needed a certain date from which it could proceed.

He ordered the trial adjourned until 1 November, with a case management hearing a month earlier.

The major barrier is bringing witnesses to Sydney to give their evidence in person. Most witnesses to be called are serving or former SAS soldiers based in Perth and they would face restrictions on returning to Western Australia should they come to Sydney.

There could still be more than 40 further witnesses called, and the trial is likely to run for months once hearings resume.

Last week it heard evidence from three witnesses from the village of Darwan, in Afghanistan’s Uruzgan province, the site of an SAS raid in 2012 and where Roberts-Smith is alleged to have participated in the murder of a farmer named Ali Jan, who was allegedly kicked off a cliff while handcuffed and then shot.

Roberts-Smith denies the allegation and says the man purported to be Ali Jan was an enemy “spotter” who was encountered, carrying a radio, in a cornfield and legally killed within the laws of war.

Roberts-Smith is suing the Age, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Canberra Times over a series of ­reports published in 2018 that he alleges are defamatory because they portray him as someone who “broke the moral and legal rules of military engagement” and committed war crimes, including murder.

The 42-year-old has consistently denied the allegations, saying they are “false”, “baseless” and “completely without any foundation in truth”. The newspapers are defending their reporting as true.

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