A decorated Australian soldier’s defamation case has been derailed after hundreds of photos showing soldiers drinking from a prosthetic leg were unearthed from his backyard. Ben Roberts-Smith, who was awarded the Victoria Cross by Queen Elizabeth II, says his angry ex-wife leaked the photos on USB drives he had buried in a lunchbox in his backyard.
Roberts-Smith is suing news outlets the Age, Sydney Morning Herald, Canberra Times, and Nine newspapers over stories that he committed war crimes when he “broke the moral and legal rules of military engagement” when he fatally shot a soldier and then “souvenired” his prosthetic leg, taking it to an underground pub called the Fat Ladies’ Arms at the base in Afghanistan in 2009.
The 42-year-old denies the allegations of war crimes, calling them “completely without any foundation in truth.” Roberts-Smith says he did kill a Taliban soldier in the line of duty, but that he did not “souvenir” the leg or drink from it, blaming another soldier. Roberts-Smith’s lawyers said he thought it was disgusting to take a body part as a war trophy.
But Wednesday, hundreds of photos of soldiers passing around the prosthetic leg surfaced including one in which Roberts-Smith is smiling with a beer beside someone drinking from the prosthetic.
Roberts-Smith’s lawyers have now argued that they do not have time to process all the images they say were leaked by his bitter ex-wife—a claim the news outlets deny. “We have been working to itemize items by Friday 4pm,” Roberts-Smith’s attorney Matthew Richardson told the court Wednesday. “We cannot do that for hundreds of images of soldiers drinking from the leg—it’s too onerous, it’s too long. All these photos are in the possession of the respondent [Nine newspapers] because the USBs were provided by my client’s ex-wife.”
Emma Roberts, the soldier’s ex-wife, is scheduled to testify about her husband’s erratic mood swings in the 10-week trial. In a deposition released ahead of next week’s trial, she said she will give evidence about her former husband’s alcohol issues and an illicit affair.
The trial, which is scheduled to start June 7, will focus on Nine news channel’s allegations of war crimes. The news outlet has retracted its claims that Roberts-Smith committed murder, but continues to support the reporting that he did commit war crimes.
The original discovery of photographs of the prosthetic leg incident spurred an internal investigation by Australian authorities that resulted in the Brereton report, which explores alleged war crimes committed by Special Air Services serving in Afghanistan. The report concluded that the disgrace did not stop at limb “souveniring” but that officers also took part in a process defined as “blooding” by planting weapons on victims to make their killings seem warranted.
The report stirred up a major diplomatic incident with China after a Chinese diplomat responded to the findings by tweeting a doctored photo of an Australian soldier holding a knife up to an Afghan child’s throat with the caption “Don’t be afraid, we are coming to bring you peace!”
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison lashed out, calling for an apology. “It is utterly outrageous and it cannot be justified on any basis whatsoever,” he told reporters. “The Chinese government should be utterly ashamed of this post. It diminishes them in the world’s eyes... It is a false image and a terrible slur on our great defense forces.”