Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Witnesses recall night of terror

Staff Sgt. accused of killing civilians

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JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- The soldier accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians watched as child after child described the bloodbath that left their parents and other loved ones dead. Whatever reaction Staff Sgt. Robert Bales might have had, he kept hidden behind a calm face.

Three sessions of overnight testimony in Bales's preliminary hearing, scheduled to accommodate witnesses participating by video link from Afghanistan, were set to wrap up late Sunday. After the hearing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the investigating officer will decide whether to court-martial Bales, who could be sentenced to death if convicted.

The witnesses were as young as little Robina, just seven, who wore a deep-red head covering and a nervous smile. She described how she hid behind her father when a gunman came to their village that night, how the stranger fired, and how her father died, cursing in pain and anger.

"I was standing behind my father," she testified. "He shot my father."

Prosecutors say Bales slipped away from his base to attack two villages in Kandahar province, killing 16 civilians, including nine children. The slayings drew such angry protests that the U.S. temporarily halted combat operations in Afghanistan, and it was three weeks before American investigators could reach the crime scenes.

The stories recounted by the villagers have been harrowing. They described torched bodies, a son finding his wounded father and boys cowering behind a curtain while others screamed, "We are children! We are children!"

Bales, 39, an Ohio native and father of two from Lake Tapps, Washington, has not entered a plea. His attorneys have not discussed the evidence, but say he has post-traumatic stress disorder and suffered a concussive head injury while serving in Iraq.

During cross-examination of several witnesses Saturday, Bales' attorney John Henry Browne sought to elicit testimony about whether there might have been more than one shooter.

One Army Criminal Investigations Command special agent testified she took a statement from one woman whose husband was killed. The woman reported that there were two soldiers in her room -- one took her husband out of the room and shot him, and the other held her back when she tried to follow.

But other eyewitnesses reported there was just one shooter, and several soldiers have testified that Bales returned to his base at Camp Belambay, just before dawn, alone and covered in blood.

 

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 12, 2012 A12

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