US soldier faces 17 charges for Afghan massacre

An Afghan man sits next to the covered bodies of civilians killed by US soldier Robert Bales in Kandahar province in this March 11, 2012 file photo. (Photo: Reuters - Ahmad Nadeem)

Published Friday, March 23, 2012

The US soldier who massacred Afghan civilians is expected to face 17 counts of murder and six counts of attempted murder next Friday, along with other charges, a US official said.

The charges against Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales come almost two weeks after the shooting rampage.

On March 11, Bales left his base in southern Afghanistan in the early hours of the morning and slaughtered 17 Afghan civilians, including women and nine children, while they slept in their beds, then burned some of the bodies.

Bales will be read the charges on Friday at the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas where he has been held since being flown from Afghanistan last week, despite strong objection to his transfer from the NATO-occupied country by Afghan lawmakers.

In addition to murder and attempted murder, the charges will include six counts of aggravated assault as well as a number of other violations of military law, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the charges before they were announced.

The 38-year-old soldier and father of two, who lives in the state of Washington, faces trial under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, but it could be months before any public hearing.

Military authorities had originally said Bales had killed 16 Afghan villagers, nine children, and seven adults. However, they changed the death toll to 17 on Thursday, raising the number of adults by one. Six Afghans were wounded in the attack.

Bales' civilian attorney, John Henry Browne, said he wouldn't comment on the charges because he has not been officially provided a copy of them. He said he spoke Thursday with prosecutors, who told him they will formally present the charges Friday.

Browne portrayed his client as a patriot, loving father, and devoted husband who had been traumatized by a comrade's injury and sent into combat one too many times.

However, a US defense official said that while it is likely that a soldier from Bales' unit suffered a leg wound a day or two before the March 11 massacre, but there is no evidence that Bales witnessed it or the aftermath, or that it played any role in his actions.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss an internal review.

Afghan officials have asked the United States for some role in the criminal proceedings, perhaps as observers, and to be kept up to date on the process of the case.

The Afghan government has not demanded that Bales be turned over to the Afghan justice system, although some in the country's parliament did. The Afghans have also urged a fast resolution of the case.

Browne also claimed that Bales has some memories from before the killings and some from after but very little of the time when he went on the indiscriminate shooting rampage.

Bales has a history of violent behavior, and has been arrested several times in the US for assault.

But it is unclear how Bales carried out deliberate, calculated, and methodical killings of his victims, without being fully aware of his actions.

The massacre of Afghan villagers was yet another blow to US-Afghan relations, following a series of US aggravations, including the recent burning of copies of the Quran by NATO soldiers at a US-run military base.

The burning of the holy book prompted violent protests in which many Afghan civilians were shot dead.

The two nations are also engaged in tense negotiations on a strategic partnership agreement that will govern the US footprint in the country after most combat forces pull out by the end of 2014.

Some lawmakers urged Karzai to abandon the agreement after the US refused to hand Bales over to Afghan custody.

The US is anathema to having its military personnel tried in jurisdictions outside the United States. Iraqi insistence on US troops being subject to Iraqi law was one of the main factors that prompted Washington to completely withdraw its forces from the country.

America's poor record of punishing its troops for war crimes is sure to attract great skepticism into Bales' case.

A US military court in January let Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich walk free for his lead role in the 2005 massacre of 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha, Iraq.

(Al-Akhbar, AP)

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