Former SAS member tells Ben Roberts-Smith trial he found weapons but no insurgents inside tunnel at Afghan compound

A former elite soldier has told a Sydney court how he found a cache of weapons but no insurgents inside a tunnel at an Afghan compound that has become central to war veteran Ben Roberts-Smith’s defamation case.

Evidence from the ex-Special Air Service Regiment (SAS) soldier codenamed Person 35, who has been called as a witness by Mr Roberts-Smith’s legal team, contradicted that given by a number of previous witnesses, who were members of his patrol.

Mr Roberts-Smith is suing The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Canberra Times newspapers over 2018 stories that included what he claims are false allegations of unlawful killings, bullying and domestic violence.

A major focus of the case has been an April 2009 mission at an Afghan compound dubbed “Whiskey 108”, known to be a Taliban stronghold, where the secret tunnel was discovered.

Previous witnesses called by Nine’s defence lawyers have claimed two unarmed Afghan men emerged from the tunnel after it was detected by the Australian patrol. 

A large hole in the ground
The entrance to a tunnel at the Afghan compound known as “Whiskey 108”.(Supplied: Federal Court of Australia)

In court documents, Nine alleges one of the men was executed by a soldier codenamed Person 4 at the direction of his superior, Person 5, while the second man was killed by Mr Roberts-Smith with a machine gun outside the compound.

Mr Roberts-Smith denies the allegation and previously told the court two armed insurgents were legitimately engaged outside the building.

Person 35 today told the judge that after the compound had been bombed and searched, he entered the tunnel, armed with a pistol and wearing night-vision goggles, to make sure it was clear. 

Inside a Taliban tunnel
Person 35 was shown photographs he had taken of the interior of the tunnel.(Supplied: Federal Court of Australia)

He described the tunnel entrance as a “rough-cut hole” with “earth-cut steps down under the ground”, which was “difficult to manoeuvre through” and which opened up into a larger room.

“Did you locate or observe any individuals in the tunnel?” Mr Roberts-Smith’s barrister Arthur Moses SC asked.

“No,” the witness replied.

He said on entering the tunnel, he noticed a mat covering the ground. 

Items found inside a Taliban bunker
A photograph of weapons and ammunition allegedly found inside the tunnel.(Supplied: Federal Court of Australia)

“On that mat, there was AK-variants, chest rigs, there was documents, communication devices,” he said.

“Hidden in the rafter areas of the roof of the tunnel was more batteries, more communication devices, those sorts of things.”

Person 35 told the court he returned to the surface after approximately one minute and then began “ferrying” the items to his team.

Person 35 was shown photographs he had taken of the interior of the tunnel, which have been tendered to the court and was asked to describe what they showed.

He told the court there were no Afghan locals present in the courtyard where the tunnel was discovered.

A soldier holding a gun found in a bunker
A photograph of a weapon allegedly found inside the tunnel was tendered to the court.(Supplied: Federal Court of Australia)

Previously, a member of his patrol, codenamed Person 40, had told the court two “obviously very frightened” men emerged from the tunnel before they were “marched off” by Mr Roberts-Smith and Person 35.

He also said there were two frightened women in the courtyard.

Another soldier, Person 42, also recalled there were women in the area and said “at least two … potentially three” people came out of the tunnel, who he explained were “compliant” and “came out unarmed” when ordered to by the Australians. 

Person 35 told the court that nobody would have called out before clearing the tunnel because it was not applicable to the “tactical situation”.

The interior of an underground room, with debris on the floor
A photograph taken by Person 35 inside the tunnel.(Supplied: Federal Court of Australia)

Another soldier witness, Person 41, has claimed to have seen Mr Roberts-Smith “frogmarch” an Afghan man outside the compound and fire “three to five” rounds from a machine gun into his back.

A witness codenamed Person 24 claimed he saw the alleged execution and claimed that while the shooter’s face was camouflaged, and told the court he could tell it was Mr Roberts-Smith due to the person’s “hunched over” gait.

Mr Roberts-Smith and Person 5 have both given evidence that there were no men in the tunnel.

The trial, before Justice Anthony Besanko, continues.

A large dark hole
Person 35 said he entered the tunnel, armed with a pistol and wearing night-vision goggles.(Supplied: Federal Court of Australia)

Leave a Comment