Death penalty sought for soldier accused of killing 16 villagers

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The US Army is to seek the death penalty against the soldier accused of killing 16 Afghan villagers in a pre-dawn rampage.

The announcement followed a pre-trial hearing last month for Staff Sgt Robert Bales, 39, who faces premeditated murder and other charges over the attack on two villages in southern Afghanistan in March.

The killings drew such angry protests the US temporarily halted combat operations in Afghanistan and it was three weeks before American investigators could reach the crime scenes.

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

No date has been set for Bales’s court-martial, which will be held at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, south of Seattle, Washington.

His civilian lawyer, John Browne, said he met army officials last week to argue his client should not face the possibility of the death penalty, given that Bales was on 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 PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), concussive head injuries and other injuries,” Mr 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’s wife Kari said in a statement that she and their children had been enjoying their weekend visits with Bales at the base and she hoped he received 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.

Bales’s 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 he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Bales grew up in 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, with troops recounting how they saw Bales return to the base alone, covered in blood.

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

Afghan witnesses questioned via a video link 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!”

An army criminal investigations command special agent said Bales tested positive for steroids three days after the killings and other soldiers said he had been drinking on the evening of the massacre.

Prosecutors, in asking for a court-martial trial, 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”.

The US military has not executed anyone since 1961. There are five men facing military death sentences, but none for killings committed in war zones, according to the Death Penalty Information Centre.

Nidal Hasan, charged over the 2009 rampage that killed 13 and wounded more than two dozen others at Fort Hood in Texas, also could face the death penalty if convicted; no date has been set for his court-martial.

For Bales to face execution, the court-martial jury must unanimously find him guilty of premeditated murder and rule that at least one aggravating factor applies.