US soldier in court over massacre
US military prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty for an American soldier accused of killing 16 Afghan villagers earlier this year.
The lead prosecutor, Lt Col Jay Morse, told a preliminary hearing late yesterday he would present evidence proving "chilling premeditation" on the part of Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, a decorated veteran of four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The shootings of mostly women and children in Afghanistan's Kandahar province in March marked the worst case of civilian slaughter blamed on an individual US soldier since the Vietnam War and eroded already strained US-Afghan ties after more than a decade of conflict in the country.
Sgt Bales faces 16 counts of premeditated murder and six counts of attempted murder as well as charges of assault and wrongfully possessing and using steroids and alcohol while deployed.
Col Morse said he was submitting a "capital referral" in the case, requesting that Sgt Bales be executed if convicted. The hearing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state was expected to last two weeks and include witness testimony from Afghanistan carried by live video, including testimony from villagers and Afghan soldiers.
At the end, military commanders will decide whether there is sufficient evidence for Sgt Bales to stand trial by court-martial.
Sgt Bales, dressed in camouflage army fatigues with his head shaven, embraced his wife in court before the hearing began. He then sat silently watching the proceedings from the defence table as Col Morse summarised the prosecution's account of the events of March 10th-11th.
According to Col Morse, Sgt Bales had been drinking with two fellow soldiers before he left his base, Camp Belambay, and went to a village where he committed the first killings.
Col Morse said Sgt Bales then returned to the camp and told Sgt Jason McLaughlin "I just shot up some people," before leaving for a second village and killing more people.
Col Morse called Sgt Bales' actions "deliberate, methodical."
According to Sgt McLaughlin, Sgt Bales asked him to smell his rifle and said "I'll be back at 5 (am). You got me?" Sgt McLaughlin said he did not think Sgt Bales was serious, and "didn't think too much about it," going back to sleep for guard duty that started at 3am.
Prosecutors showed a video shot by night-vision camera from a surveillance balloon over the camp, showing a figure they identified as Sgt Bales walking back to the post wearing a dark blue bed sheet or throw rug tied around his neck like a cloak.