US army seeks death penalty over Afghan massacre

Staff Sergeant Robert Bales is accused of killing 16 Afghan villagers, including nine children, in a predawn rampage

US army prosecutors have asked for a death penalty court martial for an American soldier accused of killing 16 Afghan villagers in a predawn rampage, saying that Staff Sergeant Robert Bales committed "heinous and despicable crimes".

Prosecutors made their closing arguments after a week of testimony in the preliminary hearing. They say Bales, 39, slipped away from his remote base at Camp Belambay in southern Afghanistan to attack two villages early on 11 March. Among the dead were nine children.

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

"Terrible, terrible things happened," said prosecutor Major Rob Stelle. "That is clear."

Stelle cited statements Bales made after he was apprehended, saying they demonstrated "a clear memory of what he had done and consciousness of wrongdoing".

Several soldiers testified that Bales returned to the base alone just before dawn, covered in blood, and that he made incriminating statements including: "I thought I was doing the right thing."

A lawyer for Bales argued there was not enough information to proceed with the court martial.

"There are a number of questions that have not been answered so far in this investigation," Emma Scanlan told the investigating officer overseeing the preliminary hearing.

Scanlan said Bales's state of mind on the evening of the killings was still unknown.

An army criminal investigator earlier testified that Bales tested positive for steroids three days after the killings, and other soldiers testified that Bales had been drinking the evening of the massacre.

"We've heard that Sergeant Bales was lucid, coherent and responsive," Scanlan said in her closing argument. "We don't know what it means to be on alcohol, steroids and sleeping aids."

The investigating officer said on Tuesday he would have a written recommendation by the end of the week but that was just the start of the process. That recommendation will go to the brigade command, and the ultimate decision would be made by the three-star general on the base. There is no clear indication of how long it could be before a decision is reached on whether to proceed to a court martial.

If a court martial takes place it will be held at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, south of Seattle, Washington, and witnesses would be flown in from Afghanistan.

The military has not executed a service member since 1961, and none of the six men on death row at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, was convicted for atrocities against foreign civilians. All of their crimes involved the killing of US civilians or fellow service personnel.

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