Staff Sergeant Robert Bales has been charged with the premeditated murder of 17 Afghan civilians — nine children and eight adults — on March 11 in Kandahar province. He has also been charged with six counts of assault and attempted murder on a man, a woman and four children. He could face the death penalty for the charges, say American officials in Afghanistan. According to the New York Times, the minimum penalty he could face for the charge of premeditated murder is life in prison with the possibility of parole.
The killings have further strained already tense Afghan-US relations and led to demands that NATO accelerate the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.
Since being flown from Afghanistan via Kuwait to the US, Sgt Bales has been held in solitary confinement in a military prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He is the only known suspect in the killings, though Afghans have repeatedly asserted that he was not the only American involved. Both Afghan and American officials have said that 38-year-old Sgt Bales, who had recently been deployed to Afghanistan to serve his fourth tour of duty after serving three tours in Iraq, walked off his base in southern Afghanistan, entered the homes of a number of Afghan civilians and shot them.
The charges were described in an 6-page-statement. Initial reports had said that Sgt Bales killed 16 civilians and the larger number was not accounted for in the statement, says the New York Times. Three of those wounded in the attacks remain hospitalized.
John Henry Browne, Sgt Bales’s lawyer, has refuted earlier reports that his client was drunk on the night of the killings and has said that Sgt Bales remembers “very little.” Browne also said that Bales “definitely” experienced a brain injury from a vehicle rollover suffered in Iraq; Sgt Bales had not received or sought treatment for this, according to Browne. Sgt Bales was based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, south of Tacoma, Wash., and Browne says in the New York Times that there is a “strong chance legal proceedings in the future” could take place there.
President Hamid Karzai and many in Afghanistan had requested that Sgt Bales be tried there, despite an agreement with the US that coalition fighters accused of crimes be tried in their own countries. Karzai has been “sharply critical” of the quick transfer of Sgt Bales back to the US. While reaction to the charges against Sgt Bales was muted in Afghanistan, in part because Friday is a day off there and because it is the Persian holiday of Norwuz, Aimal Faizi, a spokesman for Karzai, said that ďthe people of Afghanistan want justice as soon as possible.Ē
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