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Soldier pleads guilty in massacre of 16 Afghan civilians

In this detail from a courtroom sketch, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, left, stands before military judge Col. Jeffery Nance, right, Wednesday, June 5, 2013, during a plea hearing in a military courtroom at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state. Bales pleaded guilty to multiple counts of murder, stemming from a pre-dawn attack on two villages in Kandahar Province in Afghanistan in March, 2012.

For Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, the rampage that resulted in the murder of 16 Afghan civilians began when he encountered a grandmother in a compound in the village of Alkozai in the predawn hours of March 11, 2012.

Her name was Na’ikmarga.

She put up a brief struggle before she died.

Bales said he then decided to try to kill everyone in that compound, beginning a long morning of mayhem that ended hours later at a second village, as he doused bodies with kerosene from a lantern and set them on fire.

Bales, a balding 39-year-old soldier from Joint Base Lewis-McChord, talked publicly for the first time Wednesday about his actions that day. In a courtroom at the Western Washington base, he pleaded guilty to those crimes as part of an agreement that will allow him to avoid the death penalty.

Col. Jeffery Nance, an Army judge, approved the agreement.

These were the worst war crimes by a U.S. soldier during the long war in Afghanistan. In addition to the 16 murders, Bales pleaded guilty to the attempted murder of six others.

Most of his victims were women and children, some of whom he attacked with an M-4 rifle and a 9- mm handgun as they slept on carpets and blankets.

There were no apologies Wednesday.

Bales’ defense attorneys said that would come later in a sentencing phase to determine if he will serve his life imprisonment with or without possibility of parole.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Bales talked about the murders of Na’ikmarga as well as the fate of the other Afghans.

Sometimes, when he pronounced a victim’s name, his voice appeared to quiver a bit. But Bales, dressed in a Class A blue uniform, mostly sat with his hands clasped in front of him and spoke in a calm, clear voice.

“I observed a female I now know to be Palwasha,” Bales told the judge. “I formed the intent to kill Palwasha, and then I did kill her by shooting her with a firearm and burning her. This act, again sir, was without legal justification.”

When asked by the judge why he killed the villagers, Bales offered few clues.

“As far as why, I have asked that question a million times since then, and there is not a good reason in this world for why I did the horrible things that I did,” Bales said.

During the hearing, Col. Nance, the Army judge, concluded that Bales understood his plea agreement and was competent to move forward to the sentencing phase of the court-martial now scheduled for August.

During that hearing, a panel of soldiers will determine if he should receive an opportunity to be considered for parole or serve a life sentence without that possibility.

Bales’ attorneys have noted that he was an Army soldier on his fourth deployment to a war zone, and had previously been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder as well as a mild traumatic brain injury.

Bales also pleaded guilty to drinking alcohol in violation of military orders in Afghanistan and the illegal use of stanozolol, a steroid he said he took three times a week to increase his muscle mass. He said the steroid “definitely increased my irritability and anger.“

Given those circumstances, Bales’ attorneys will argue for a life sentence with parole, which would allow him to be considered for release after serving 10 years in prison.

“He deserves a chance, and it’s only a chance, to potentially be someday reunited with his family after he serves the time and punishment for what he has done,” Emma Scanlan, one of his defense attorneys, said after the hearing.

Bales’ attorneys have said they are considering calling expert witnesses, such as a neuropsychologist, to testify during the sentencing phase of the trial.

His attorneys say that he hopes that his acceptance of responsibility for the crimes will help some of the victims find peace and that he has a lot of remorse. He also is concerned about the impact on Army troops in Afghanistan.

“Sgt. Bales has been waiting for the day that he can accept responsibility for what he has done,” Scanlan said after the hearing.

“He can hopefully give some sense of peace to the people who are the victims of this tragedy, to his own family and to the soldiers who are still serving in Afghanistan. That has been his purpose from the beginning, and that is what he wants from this.”

The conduct of the case has angered some of the survivors.

Lela Ahmadzai, a journalist who produced a Web documentary on the massacre for the Germany-based 2470 media, on Wednesday interviewed by phone relatives of the victims.

“I ask for justice. The American who killed our relatives should be hanged,” said Mohammed Baran, who last year testified via a video link at a pretrial hearing.

Baran said if the death penalty was no longer under consideration, he would not agree to testify, if asked, during the sentencing phase.

Samiullah, another relative of the victims, also expressed dismay that Bales avoided a death sentence.

‘We want the suspect to be punished. What can someone poor do against so much power?” he told Ahmadzai.

 

Hal Bernton: 464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

 

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