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Testimony Begins in Afghan Atrocities Trial

Artist's sketch of U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs in court (File)

Artist's sketch of U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs in court (File)

An American soldier is on trial for the murders of unarmed non-combatants in Afghanistan in what is alleged to have been the worst known case of misconduct by U.S.troops during the Afghan conflict.

The court martial session heard accounts of unarmed Afghan farmers being shot in staged combat scenes, their corpses mutilated, fingers cut off and passed around as trophies.

The grisly testimony came Monday in graphic photos showing victims' bodies and, in the words of chief witness Jeremy Morlock - once the right hand of platoon leader Calvin Gibbs. Morlock pleaded guilty to murder in March and is serving a life sentence.

Gibbs is one of 12 platoon members charged. Prosecutors say he was the main conspirator of the killings in Kandahar province last year.

Morlock says Gibbs viewed Afghan people with disdain, referring to them as savages.

Monday's testimony here included accounts of rampant narcotics use in the platoon and of failing morale. Morlock said the troops were eager to get into the firefights for which they had been trained. He said that months into their Afghan deployment, they had engaged only in what Morlock described as meet-and-greets and handshaking - and he said frustration was building.

It was then that Morlock says Gibbs handed him a grenade and told him to go out make the platoon's first kill. Two others followed in the subsequent months. In Monday's testimony, there were details of nearly 100 conversations that Gibbs and others in the platoon had in planning how to stage the killings.

In a community with strong ties to the military, the court-martial touches many.

George Harbin, a war veteran, spoke while attending a dinner meeting of a local veterans' organization near the base. He lost two stepsons in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and believes Gibbs' alleged misconduct diminishes the sacrifices made by thousands of American soldiers.

“There's no excuse. A staff sergeant should have at least two years of college. If you're going to have two years' college, you're going to have the mentality and IQ to know the difference between right and wrong," said Harbin. "A person running across in front of your weapon without a weapon is not fair game. We're not Nazis and we're not Fascists."

Gibbs has pleaded not guilty on all of the charges. In opening statements Monday, his attorney, Phil Stackhouse, said the killings happened in legitimate combat. He said Gibbs cut a finger off the Afghan's corpse because he was angry about the man's alleged attempts to kill him. He had no explanation for why Gibbs kept the finger.

A total of 28 witnesses will take the stand before a panel of five soldiers decides whether Gibbs is guilty of the 16 charges against him that include premeditated murder and conspiracy.

For the 26-year-old soldier, a conviction could mean life in prison without parole.