Australia’s most decorated living war veteran is suing three newspapers for libel over claims about his time fighting in Afghanistan.
Ben Roberts-Smith, 42, has begun legal proceedings against The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, and The Canberra Times over articles they published in 2018.
The defamation trial against Nine Entertainment, who owned all three papers at the time, began at Sydney‘s Federal Court on Monday.
Bruce McClintock, Mr Roberts-Smith’s lawyer, told the court his client’s reputation had been destroyed by “corrosive jealousy” and “bitter people” who had run a “poisonous campaign against him”.
Mr McClintock said other soldiers had been “enormously jealous” about the honours awarded to Mr Roberts-Smith – which include the Victoria Cross – and had sought revenge with claims he “broke the moral and legal rules of military engagement”.
He said the former Special Air Service Regiment corporal risked his life during tours between 2009 and 2012, making specific reference to the “selfless valour” he demonstrated during an incident in Kandahar province in 2010.
Mr McClintock said he had showed “total disregard for his own safety”, engaging insurgents at point-blank range and managing to kill a number of them.
He added that during the trial his client will deny all claims of bullying other soldiers and that an insurgent killed was under 14-years-old.
Nine Entertainment, which is a rival company of Seven West Media where Mr Roberts-Smith is an executive, will plead the truth defence.
Around 39,000 Australians have served in Afghanistan, with 41 killed in combat.
The 10-week trial continues.
Rishi Sunak plans to ban Channel migrants from appealing deportation
The prime minister is looking to ban people arriving in the UK via small boats from appealing against deportation, Sky News understands.
Rishi Sunak has made stopping Channel migrant crossings one of his five priorities in office, promising to introduce new laws to “make sure that if you come to this country illegally, you are detained and swiftly removed”.
A report in The Times said the Home Office has now drawn up two plans to stop people arriving via this route from claiming asylum – either withdrawing the right to appeal against automatic exclusion from the asylum system or only allowing them to appeal after they have been deported.
A third proposal would prevent people from being able to use the Human Rights Act to stop their deportations, such as by claiming their right to family life.
Sky News understands the report to be accurate.
A Home Office spokesperson would not comment directly on the report, but said: “The unacceptable number of people risking their lives by making these dangerous crossings is placing an unprecedented strain on our asylum system.
“Our priority is to stop this and prevent these illegal crossings, and our new Small Boats Operational Command – bolstered by hundreds of extra staff – is working hard to disrupt the business model of people smugglers.”
They added: “We are also going further by introducing legislation which will ensure that those people arriving in the UK illegally are detained and promptly removed either to their home country or a safe third country.”
Chinese spy balloon: US sec of state Blinken speaks with senior Chinese official over cancelled visit
US secretary of state Antony Blinken has spoken with a senior Chinese official about his postponed trip to the country.
US officials said Mr Blinken spoke to the Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Office Wang Yi today postponing the planned visit.
But the secretary of state “indicated he would plan to travel” to China “at the earliest opportunity when conditions allow”.
Officials also said they “noted” China’s statement of regret but said “the presence of this balloon in our airspace is a clear violation of our sovereignty, as well as international law, and it is unacceptable that this has occurred”.
The diplomatic wrangling comes after a Chinese surveillance balloon has been tracked by US intelligence in recent days.
In a press conference today, the US defence department has said the Chinese spy balloon is heading eastwards but poses “no physical or military threat” to civilians.
The Pentagon’s press secretary would not confirm the current location of the balloon, which is operating at around 60,000ft.
There is also no evidence of any nuclear or radioactive material on board but it has the ability to be manoeuvred, according to Brigadier General Pat Ryder.
He also rejected Chinese claims that the balloon was in fact a “civilian airship” that had strayed into American airspace.
The US authorities said it now knows the object – spotted over Billings, Montana, on Wednesday, close to one of the US’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base – was a Chinese balloon flying over sensitive sites to collect information.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a high-profile visit to China which had been due to begin on Sunday.
Senior state department officials described the incident as a “clear violation of US sovereignty and international law” and said conditions were “not right at this moment” for Mr Blinken to travel.
Mr Blinken was prepared to depart for China tonight before the trip was postponed, Sky News understands.
He plans to travel “when conditions allow”, according to officials.
The Foreign Ministry in Beijing admitted the balloon had come from China – but said it was for meteorological and other scientific research.
The Pentagon spokesperson said it is “monitoring the situation closely and will continue to review options”.
What are spy balloons?
The balloon will probably remain over the US for a few days, the spokesperson added.
US officials also confirmed military intelligence had previously seen similar surveillance balloons elsewhere.
Military and defence leaders had considered shooting the balloon out of the sky but decided against it due to the safety risk from falling debris.
US defence secretary Lloyd Austin convened a meeting of senior military and defence leaders to review the threat profile of the balloon and possible responses, which were presented to US President Joe Biden on Wednesday.
President Biden, speaking at a White House conference about jobs earlier today, refused to answer questions on the topic.
The US has engaged Chinese officials “with urgency” and communicated the seriousness of the situation.
China and the US have experienced tensions of late, clashing over Taiwan and China’s human rights record and its military activity in the South China Sea.
Paris Olympics: UK to host summit in bid to ban Russia from games
Opposition to Russians being allowed to compete at next year’s Paris Olympics is intensifying, as the UK government prepares to convene talks with more than 30 countries.
The summit is due to be held next Friday 10 February.
The International Olympic Committee is facing dissent over its willingness to allow athletes from Russia to compete as neutrals in Paris next year in defiance of pleas from Ukraine, following Vladimir Putin’s invasion.
Ukrainian Olympic officials decided on Friday to consult on a possible boycott of the Olympics and an outright ban on Russian athletes – a stance supported by the leaders of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania which border Russia and gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Lithuania’s sports minister Jurgita Siugzdiniene told Sky News that her British counterpart has organised a virtual meeting next Friday involving more than 30 countries on excluding athletes from Russia and Belarus from the Olympics.
As well as European governments, officials from Canada, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea are among the global participants in the meeting. Poland has said it would be possible to build a coalition of about 40 countries, including the US, Britain and Canada.
“We should do everything [so] Russian and Belarusian athletes would not participate in the Olympics, and even under the veil of neutrality,” Ms Siugzdiniene said.
“That’s what we should agree and that is very important. And so in that way we wouldn’t need to discuss the boycott.”
The IOC announced last week that it was open to athletes from Russia and Belarus – which has been used as a staging post for the invasion of Ukraine – competing as neutrals in Paris if they have not actively supported the war.
“I see it as an effort to legitimise and distract attention from Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine,” Ms Siugzdiniene said.
“I think they can use this as a platform. So it would be very wrong that we would provide this opportunity for them.”
In the last three summer and winter Olympics between 2018 and 2022, Russian athletes have been prevented from competing with the national flag or anthem as punishment for the country’s state-sponsored doping scheme.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said any neutral flag for Russia in Paris would be “stained with blood”.
At Friday’s meeting, Ukraine’s sports minister and president of the country’s Olympic committee Vadym Hutzait said members were united “against allowing sportspeople from Russia and Belarus from competing”.
In an appeal to sporting authorities, he said: “As long as the war is going on, as long as our motherland is being bombed, as long as we are fighting for freedom and independence, we have a great wish not to see them [Russians and Belarusians].
“There is a discussion on the international level and we have already some countries supporting us.”
He added: “The price of Ukrainians’ lives is of the highest value. We have no right for compromise … when our Ukrainians are dying.”
The IOC wants sports federations to allow any Russians or Belarusians who have not been “actively supporting the war in Ukraine” to take part and argues it would be discriminatory to ban athletes based on their citizenship alone.
It has responded to the comparison with Apartheid-era South Africa being excluded from the Olympics for more than 20 years, pointing out that UN sanctions were in place at the time.
“There are no UN sanctions in place against Russia and Belarus at this moment in time,” the IOC said.
But Russia, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, can veto any proposed resolution.
Government pressure on athletes and sports bodies should also be resisted, the IOC said, adding its stated mission is “to unite the entire world in a peaceful competition”.
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