JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Washington (AP) — The first of nine Afghan villagers has taken the witness stand in the sentencing of the U.S. soldier who massacred 16 civilians in Kandahar Province last year.
Haji Mohammad Naim appeared Tuesday in the courtroom at Joint Base Lewis-McChord south of Seattle. Speaking through an interpreter, he promptly referred to the gunman, Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, as a “bastard.”
Naim said he has lingering numbness in his hand and a stutter since he was shot in the neck from just a few feet away.
Bales pleaded guilty in June to avoid the death penalty for killing 16 civilians and wounding six others, mostly women and children. The six jurors must decide whether he is sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole or without it.
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Staff Sgt. Robert Bales felt “inadequate as a soldier and as a man” when he left his remote post in Afghanistan in the middle of the night last year and attacked two mud-walled villages, gunning down men, screaming children and elderly women, a prosecutor told jurors Tuesday.
Bales pleaded guilty in June to avoid the death penalty for killing 16 civilians and wounding six others, mostly women and children, in the March 11, 2012, assaults. In the sentencing hearing that began Tuesday, the six jurors must decide whether he is sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole or without it.
An Army prosecutor, Lt. Col. Jay Morse, opened the government’s case by reading a 32-page “stipulation of facts” — an unbearably gruesome recitation of Bales’ actions that night, describing how he executed a young girl who was screaming for him to stop beating her father, how he fired indiscriminately into rooms full of children and how he slaughtered 11 members of a single family, many of them still asleep on their blankets.
“The accused placed his weapon on ‘burst’ and murdered everyone in the room,” Morse said.
Offering the most detailed single account yet of the attack, Morse recounted the killings compound-by-compound and room-by-room, describing at one point how a widow was left clutching bits of her husband’s skull when the killer finally left. Bales looked away as prosecutors displayed pictures of some of his bloodied victims.
Bales, a 39-year-old Ohio native and father of two from Lake Tapps, Wash., was serving his fourth combat deployment when he left the outpost at Camp Belambay in the pre-dawn darkness. He first attacked one village, returning to Belambay only when he realized he was low on ammunition, Morse said.
He then woke a fellow soldier, described his actions and said he was headed out to kill more. The other soldier didn’t believe him and went back to sleep. Bales left again.
The massacre prompted such angry protests that the U.S. temporarily halted combat operations in Afghanistan, and it was three weeks before Army investigators could reach the crime scene.
At the time, Bales had been under heavy personal, professional and financial stress, Morse said. He had complained to other soldiers that his wife was fat and unattractive and said he’d divorce her except that her father had money. He had stopped paying the mortgage on one of his houses because it was assessed at $60,000 less than he paid for it, and he was upset that he had not been promoted.
“The accused felt inadequate as a soldier and as a man because of his personal, financial and professional problems,” Morse said.
Furthermore, Bales had expressed a desire for revenge when a fellow soldier had stepped on a roadside bomb and lost his leg below the knee a week earlier — though Bales did not personally witness the event or see the soldier afterward, Morse said.
The sentencing was expected to offer some victims and relatives their first chance to confront Bales face-to-face.
The Army flew nine villagers, all males, from Kandahar Province. Among them are Haji Mohammad Wazir, who lost 11 family members, including his wife, mother and two brothers; Haji Mohammad Naim, who was shot in the neck; and a teenage boy named Rafiullah who was shot in both legs.
Several have previously said they are outraged that Bales is escaping the death penalty.
During his plea hearing in June, Bales couldn’t explain to a judge why he committed the killings. “There’s not a good reason in this world for why I did the horrible things I did,” he said.
He did not say he was sorry, but his lawyers hinted an apology might come at sentencing.
Bales’ attorneys have said they plan to present evidence that could warrant leniency, including his previous deployments and what they describe as his history of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
“Our general theme is that Sgt. Bales snapped,” one of his civilian attorneys, John Henry Browne, said earlier.
If he is sentenced to life with the possibility of parole, Bales would be eligible in 20 years, but there’s no guarantee he would receive it.
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