WASHINGTON — Charges filed Friday against Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales reflect the horror of the crime: 17 counts of premeditated murder, more than half of them children, during a shooting rampage in southern Afghanistan. But while Afghans are calling for swift and severe punishment, it will likely be months, even years, before the public ever sees Bales in a courtroom.
One only has to look at two recent and similarly high-profile cases to see that the wheels of military justice turn slowly.
It's been nearly 29 months since an Army psychiatrist, Maj. Nidal Hasan, allegedly killed 13 and injured two dozen more at Fort Hood, Texas. His trial is scheduled to begin in June. And it's been 21 months since the military charged intelligence analyst Bradley Manning with leaking hundreds of thousands of pages of classified information. It took nine months before he was deemed competent to stand trial.
The Bales case is likely to be equally complex, involving questions of his mental state and the role that the stresses of war and possible previous head injuries may have played in his alleged actions. Most of the eyewitnesses are the Afghan villagers and survivors who may be brought in for the trial.
The military on Friday charged Bales with 17 counts of murder, six counts of attempted murder and six counts of assault in the March 11 pre-dawn massacre in two southern Afghanistan villages near his base. The father of two from Lake Tapps, Wash., was officially informed of the 29 charges just before noon at the U.S. military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., where he is confined.
The maximum punishment for a premeditated murder conviction is death, dishonorable discharge from the armed forces, reduction to the lowest enlisted grade and total forfeiture of pay and allowances, according to Col. Gary Kolb, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The mandatory minimum sentence is life imprisonment with the chance of parole.
The charges offered few details of what happened that night. But the 38-year-old soldier is accused of walking off his base with his 9mm pistol and M-4 rifle, which was outfitted with a grenade launcher, killing four men, four women, two boys and seven girls and burning some of the bodies. The ages of the children were not disclosed.
In the most detailed descriptions of the shootings to date, the charges say Bales shot a young girl in the head, a young boy in the thigh, a man in the neck and a woman in the chest and groin. The documents also say that he "shot at" another girl and boy, but apparently did not hit them.
The attack occurred in the Panjwai district of Kandahar Province, the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban. The dead bodies were found in Balandi and Alkozai villages — one north and one south of the base.
Members of the Afghan delegation investigating the killings said one Afghan guard working from midnight to 2 a.m. saw a U.S. soldier return to the base around 1:30 a.m. Another Afghan soldier who replaced the first and worked until 4 a.m. said he saw a U.S. soldier leaving the base at 2:30 a.m. It's unknown whether the Afghan guards saw the same U.S. soldier. If the gunman acted alone, information from the Afghan guards would suggest that he returned to base in between the shooting rampages.
It also is not known whether the suspect used grenades, Kolb said. The grenade launcher attachment is added to the standard issue M-4 rifle for some soldiers but not all, he said. Bales was assigned to provide force protection at the base.
The case against him is the worst allegation of killing of civilians by an American in Afghanistan and has severely strained U.S.-Afghan ties at a critical time in the decade-old war.
The Taliban said they had no faith that the U.S. military court system would bring the shooter to justice. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said in an email to The Associated Press that the insurgents themselves would avenge the killings by killing U.S. forces one-by-one.
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