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.

He is seen being confronted by three soldiers, including the two men prosecutors said he had been drinking with, who ordered him to drop his weapons and took him into custody.

One of the three, Cpl David Godwin, testified that Sgt Bales kept repeating the words, "I thought I was doing the right thing," and "It's bad. It's bad. It's really bad."

Several witnesses said Sgt Bales' trousers were spattered with blood. One said he had a "ghost-like look."

Corp Godwin recounted that he, Sgt Bales and Sgt McLaughlin had been drinking whiskey together in Sgt McLaughlin's room while watching the Hollywood film Man on Fire, which stars Denzel Washington as a former assassin bent on revenge.

Several witnesses from the camp said Sgt Bales had been aggrieved over the lack of action over an improvised explosive device attack on a patrol near the camp several days earlier, in which one US soldier lost the lower part of a leg.

Prosecutors said Sgt Bales had been armed with a rifle, a pistol and a grenade launcher on the night in question, and that the killings took place over a five-hour period in two villages. The dead included members of four families, most shot in the head.

When Sgt Bales returned to the camp and surrendered his weapons, he was brought to Capt Daniel Fields, team leader, at the camp's command base. "What the f**k just happened?" Capt Fields said he asked Sgt Bales.

He said Sgt Bales avoided eye contact and just said "I'm sorry, I let you down."

Sgt Bales, who was not expected to testify during the so-called Article 32 hearing, had been confined at a military prison in Kansas from March until he was moved in October to Lewis-McChord, where his infantry regiment was based.

John Henry Browne, Sgt Bales' civilian lawyer, has suggested Sgt Bales may not have acted alone and may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Sgt Bales' wife, Kari, told a local NBC affiliate, KING5-TV, before yesterday's hearing she believed he was innocent, as a massacre of innocent civilians was "not something my husband would have done ... not the Bob that I know".

The shootings highlighted discipline problems among US soldiers from Lewis-McChord, which was also the home base of four enlisted men from the former 5th Stryker Brigade who were convicted or pleaded guilty to murder or manslaughter over three killings of unarmed Afghan civilians in 2010.