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US soldier faces death penalty for Afghan massacre

The US Army said on Wednesday it would seek the death penalty for the soldier accused of killing 16 Afghan villagers in a pre-dawn rampage in March, a decision his lawyer called “totally irresponsible”.

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A decorated US soldier accused of killing 16 Afghan villagers in two forays from his remote military camp was ordered to face a court martial before a military panel that could impose the death penalty if he is found guilty, the military said on Wednesday.

The announcement followed a pretrial hearing last month for Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, 39, who faces premeditated murder and other charges in the attack on two villages in Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan.

The slayings drew such angry protests that the US temporarily halted combat operations in the country, and it was three weeks before American investigators could reach the crime scenes. The shootings, among the deadliest involving civilians that the military has blamed on an individual US soldier since the Vietnam War, further damaged already strained US-Afghan relations.

Prosecutors said Bales left his remote base early on March 11, attacked one village and returned to the base before leaving again to attack another nearby compound. Of the 16 people killed, nine were children.

Bales’ civilian lawyer, John Henry Browne, told AP news agency he met with army officials last week to argue his client shouldn’t face the possibility of the death penalty, given that Bales was serving his fourth deployment in a war zone when the killings occurred.

“The army is not taking responsibility for Sgt. Bales and other soldiers that the army knowingly sends into combat situations with diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), concussive head injuries and other injuries,” Browne said. “The Army is trying to take the focus off the failure of its decisions, and the failure of the war itself, and making Sgt. Bales out to be a rogue soldier.”

Bales’ wife, Kari Bales, said in a statement on Wednesday that she and their children have been enjoying their weekend visits with Bales and she hopes he is granted an impartial trial. “I no longer know if a fair trial for Bob is possible, but it very much is my hope, and I will have faith,” she said.

‘Abysmal mental health system’

Bales’ defence team has said the government’s case is incomplete, and outside experts have said a key issue going forward will be to determine if Bales suffered from PTSD.

Emma Scanlan, a civilian defence lawyer for Bales, said on Wednesday that her client suffered from an unspecified mental disorder and criticised the decision to refer his case to a capital court martial. “It’s ignoring the army’s own responsibility for an abysmal mental health system,” Scanlan said.

Bales grew up in the Cincinnati suburb of Norwood, Ohio, and served tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

During last month’s preliminary hearing, prosecutors built a strong eyewitness case against the veteran soldier.

Afghan witnesses questioned via a video link from a forward operating base near Kandahar City described the horror of that night. A teenage boy recalled how the gunman kept firing as children scrambled, yelling: “We are children! We are children!” A young girl in a bright headscarf recalled hiding behind her father as he was shot to death.

An army criminal investigations command special agent said at the hearing that Bales had tested positive for steroids three days after the killings, and other soldiers testified that Bales had been drinking the evening of the massacre. Attorney Scanlan said that Bales had been given steroids and alcohol by members of a US military special forces team before the shooting.

Bales’ defence team initially argued that he “had no memory” of the killings. But prosecutors have pointed to statements Bales made after he was apprehended, saying his comments demonstrated a “clear memory of what he had done, and consciousness of wrongdoing.”

Several soldiers testified at a hearing that Bales returned to the base alone just before dawn, covered in blood, and that he made incriminating statements such as, “I thought I was doing the right thing”.

One soldier testified that Bales woke him up in the middle of the night, saying he had just shot people at one village and that he was heading out again to attack another. The soldier said he didn’t believe Bales and went back to sleep.

Death penalty

The US military has not executed anyone since 1961, when a 26-year-old soldier was hanged for the rape and attempted murder of an Austrian girl. There are five men currently facing military death sentences, but none for killings committed in war zones, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Nidal Hasan, charged in the 2009 rampage that killed 13 and wounded dozens at the Fort Hood army base in Texas, could also face the death penalty if convicted; no date has been set for his court martial.

Elizabeth Hillman, president of the National Institute of Military Justice, said Bales’ mental health and its impact on culpability will undoubtedly play a central role in his court-martial.
In an email to AP news agency, she said that on one hand, the army’s decision to seek the death penalty is surprising, given that the killings took place in a war zone.

“But on the other hand, it’s not surprising that the army wants to make a statement about the critical need to protect against unnecessary civilian deaths in wartime,’ she wrote.

For Bales to face execution, the court martial jury must unanimously find him guilty of premeditated murder. They also must determine that at least one aggravating factor applies, such as multiple or child victims, and that the aggravating factor substantially outweighs any extenuating or mitigating circumstances.

The charges against Bales include 16 counts of premeditated murder, six counts of attempted murder and seven of assault, the military said. No date has been set for Bales’ court martial, which will be held at Joint Base Lewis-McChord south of Seattle.

(FRANCE 24 with wires)

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