Ben Roberts Smith trial is back on for a week as lawyers hint Covid will get worse in NSW
The rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the potential for insurgent attacks have put pressure on the Ben Roberts Smith trial to resume next week’s libel trial of Ben Roberts Smith.
But the war hero’s lawyers, including the current romantic partner of the New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian, have hinted that the Covid-19 situation in Sydney will also get worse.
Solicitor Bruce McClintock said Mr Roberts Smith had experienced “anguish” when separated from his children who are in Queensland.
“The stress on my client and the pain it is causing him is just too great,” McClintock said.
He is now separated from his children and cannot see them.
“He quit his job to deal with this case, he came from Brisbane, his parents came from Perth for this case.”
The trial is expected to last only a week from Monday to hear evidence from Afghan villagers alleging that Mr Roberts Smith or other soldiers killed an unarmed man in 2012.
It must be heard without delay, as villagers will need to travel through Taliban-controlled areas to Kabul to give their testimony. The court heard that there are currently threats of attacks on people and communications systems with the Taliban intensifying their offensive in the area ahead of the August 31 deadline for the withdrawal of coalition forces.
The federal court also heard on Monday that the trial delay is affecting the mental health of former SAS soldiers whose “mental health is deteriorating”.
Meanwhile, Roberts Smith’s legal team, which includes Gladys Berejiklian’s partner, Arthur Moses, has warned that the current coronavirus outbreak in the state is expected to worsen.
“My information is that it will continue to deteriorate,” Bruce McClintock SC said at the hearing.
“It seems, frankly, that Sydney is going to be a problem for a long time.
“Things got worse over the weekend and it looks like things are only going to get worse.”
McClintock told the court that the trial could move to Canberra if the current delta strain outbreak in New South Wales does not abate within the next month.
“It is very important to my client that [Nine media] Get their witnesses in the witness box.”
“Dangerous and serious allegations have been made…there is real harm done to my clients due to the delay.”
Judge Anthony Pisanko has ordered a court session next week to hear testimony from four Afghan villagers, who will appear via audiovisual link (AVL) from a Kabul lawyer’s office.
A Pashto translator will be connected via AVL from Ontario, Canada, and lawyers for Nine media and Mr. Roberts Smith will socialize in a Sydney courtroom.
Roberts Smith is suing nine media outlets and three journalists over articles published in three newspapers from the second half of 2018.
He says the reports falsely claim that he committed several war crimes, bullied other soldiers and that he assaulted a woman he had an affair with.
Monday’s hearing was told that nine media outlets had withdrawn a SAS witness from their case because he was “too bad mentally to continue looking into the case.”
“Many witnesses on both sides … their mental health is deteriorating,” McClintock said.
“It is imperative that this case be opened as quickly as possible.”
Afghan villagers are ready to get up early to testify from Kabul, which is five and a half hours behind Sydney.
Roberts Smith, whose parents traveled from Perth to support him during the trial, is living in south Sydney after the defamation trial against the Nine media group began in June.
When asked over the weekend how he handled the lockdown, he replied simply: “Training.”
Among the trial witnesses testifying for both sides are Special Air Force soldiers who live in Western Australia, where there is currently a “hard border” with New South Wales.
Other witnesses, including Roberts Smith’s ex-wife Emma Roberts, her school friend Danielle Scott and the former lover of the 17th person, are living interstate and will be quarantined if they need to travel to New South Wales for the trial.
Before the current Covid-19 shutdown, the expected three-month trial lasted just over three weeks, during which Roberts Smith spent nearly every day in the witness box.
With a short delay as the SAS veteran was tested for Covid-19 after visiting a city gym hotspot, he spent most of his time under questioning by Nine’s lawyers.
Nicholas Owens, SC, told Judge Pisanko that despite the length of Sydney’s lockdown, other states, notably Western Australia, tended to delay opening borders even after NSW eased it.
Arthur Moses will interrogate 21 US Special Forces soldiers and former comrades of Ben Roberts Smith who are scheduled to testify against him.