A former SAS soldier who is a witness in the Ben Roberts-Smith defamation trial has told the federal court his legal fees are being paid by the Seven Network.

The retired soldier, who has been anonymised as Person 5, also revealed under questioning from the Roberts-Smith team on Thursday that he learned the Seven Network was footing the bill for his solicitors’ and barristers’ fees on Tuesday.

Roberts-Smith, a recipient of the Victoria Cross, is suing the Age, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Canberra Times for defamation over a series of ­reports he alleges are defamatory and portray him as committing war crimes, including murder.

The newspapers are pleading a defence of truth. Roberts-Smith denies any wrongdoing.

The Seven Network is owned by billionaire Kerry Stokes, who is footing the legal bill for Roberts-Smith, the general manager of 7Queensland and Seven Brisbane before he stepped down to focus on the trial 12 months ago.

A spokesperson for the Seven Network said “the claims the Seven Network are paying the legal fees is not correct”, but did clarify that the soldier witness’s fees were being “reimbursed” by another arm of the Stokes empire.

“The fees were reimbursed by ACE the chairman’s private company,” the spokesperson told Guardian Australia. “The chairman felt it was unfair that soldiers were being brought before the inquiry without representation.”

Seven declined to answer whether it was bearing the legal costs of any other soldier witnesses called by Roberts-Smith.

Person 5 has retained counsel since May 2020. He told the court he only found out who was paying “on Tuesday morning”, the day he began giving evidence.

All serving and former soldiers called before this trial are entitled to legal representation paid for by the defence department.

Earlier this month Stokes stepped down from his role as chair and member of the Council of the Australian War Memorial after 15 years.

Person 5 told the court on Tuesday that no people were found hiding inside a tunnel during a 2009 SAS raid on an Afghan compound called Whiskey 108, contrary to evidence previously given by several soldier witnesses who were on the mission.

He said the two men shot dead during the operation were noted by troops on the operation as “EKIA” – enemy killed in action – legitimately engaged and lawfully killed.

The Whiskey 108 operation, on 12 April 2009, has emerged as a key contest in the defamation trial brought by Roberts-Smith, with the respondent newspapers alleging as part of their defence that two prisoners were executed by Australian troops during the mission.

The defamation trial, brought by Roberts-Smith, resumed in February after more than half a year in abeyance because of Covid travel restrictions and shutdowns.

Source: The Guardian