US soldier jailed for Afghan murders

 

A US army sergeant was convicted by court-martial yesterday of murdering unarmed civilians and cutting fingers from their corpses as ringleader of a rogue platoon in Afghanistan's Kandahar province.

The guilty verdict on all counts, returned after five hours of deliberations, carried an automatic life prison sentence, but the five-member jury panel then decided that Staff Sgt Calvin Gibbs (26) would be eligible for parole in eight-and-a-half years.

Pentagon officials have said the misconduct exposed by the case, which evolved from an inquiry of drug abuse within Gibbs' Stryker Brigade infantry unit, damaged the image of the United States around the globe.

Photographs entered as evidence in the case showed Gibbs and other soldiers casually posing with bloodied Afghan corpses, drawing comparisons with the inflammatory Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal in Iraq in 2004.

The decisions by the jury panel - two enlisted personnel and three officers followed a week-and-a-half of testimony at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma.

Gibbs, who has denied committing murder, declined to speak before sentencing.

His civilian lawyer, Phillip Stackhouse, asked the panel for leniency in its parole decision, saying Gibbs had ample time for reflection during his pretrial confinement and "is not the same person he was when he went to Afghanistan." He added his client wished for the chance to be reunited with his young son at some point in the future.

Military prosecutor Major Dre Leblanc argued against parole, reminding the panel that Gibbs had often said of the Afghan people he terrorised, "These people are all savages, look at how they live."

Gibbs was convicted on three counts of premeditated murder in the slayings of Afghan villagers last year that were disguised as legitimate combat engagements. Prosecutors said he acted as the chief instigator behind those killings and

other assaults by members of his self-described "kill team."

Besides charges of murder, conspiracy and other offenses, he was found guilty of beating a soldier who reported

hashish use to superiors and of military code violations for cutting fingers off bodies as war

trophies.

A single count of threatening another soldier was dismissed earlier this week.

Gibbs insisted two of the killings for which he was charged were in self-defense and that he played no role in the other. He denied allegations of planting weapons near the bodies.

Testifying in his own defense last Friday, Gibbs said he had "disassociated" himself from his actions while in combat and likened the removal of fingers from dead bodies to the taking of antlers from a deer.

Prosecution witnesses portrayed Gibbs as a blood-thirsty renegade who intimidated fellow soldiers and harbored a deep, ethnic hatred of the very people US troops were sent to protect from Taliban forces.

His chief accuser was the ex-corporal described as Gibbs' right-hand man, Jeremy Morlock, who pleaded guilty to murder for his role in the same three killings and was sentenced in March to 24 years in prison under a deal with prosecutors to obtain his co-operation in the case.

Five soldiers in all from the infantry unit formerly called the 5th Stryker Brigade were accused of murder, although Gibbs and Morlock were the only charged with more than one killing.

Reuters