U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians last year, is to be arraigned in a military court in the U.S. state of Washington on Thursday. If he is found guilty, Bales could be sentenced to death.
Staff Sergeant Bales is accused of leaving his camp in Kandahar province in the predawn hours, going into two Afghan villages and opening fire at people in their homes. The victims included nine children in a case that is widely seen as one of the worst war crimes allegedly involving U.S. troops in the Afghanistan conflict. Six people were wounded in the assault.
The Army is pushing for a death sentence.
At the arraignment Thursday, charges will be read to Bales that include 16 counts of murder and six counts of attempted murder.
The arraignment is taking place at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in the U.S. state of Washington, where Bales has been held since the Army flew him out of Afghanistan following the killings.
Larry Korb, a defense analyst at the Center for American Progress, a research group in Washington, says military prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Bales because of the horrific nature of the charges, but he says political considerations are a factor.
“The Afghan government is watching this very closely. In fact, they wanted to try him. So I think they’re trying to send the signal that even in American courts he’s going to get the severest penalty,” Korb said.
The U.S. military last executed a service member back in 1961.
Bales’ arraignment comes as the United States and the Afghan government negotiate a security agreement for when U.S. troops hand over security responsibility to Afghan security forces by the end of next year. Most of the 66,000 troops now in Afghanistan are expected to withdraw by that time, but U.S. officials are considering leaving a residual force to provide logistical support to the Afghans.
One of the issues in the negotiations is whether Afghanistan will agree to provide legal immunity to U.S. troops who remain.
U.S. officials say the negotiations have no bearing on Bales’ case, which they say will be tried on its own merits.
There are questions about Bales’ state of mind at the time of the killings.
He had suffered a concussion and was dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that went undiagnosed. One of his lawyers, John Henry Browne, told reporters last year the 39-year-old staff sergeant suffered emotional stress following multiple deployments that included three tours in Iraq.
“He saw people killed standing literally right next to him and there was an incident right before these allegations when one of his fellow soldiers was mortally wounded,” Browne said.
Prosecutors say Bales’ statements after the killings show he had a clear memory of what he allegedly did and say he was conscious of having committed wrongdoing.
It was not clear whether Bales’ lawyers would enter a plea at his arraignment Thursday.
The case is still in the early stages, and a date has yet to be set for the court-martial to begin.