x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Afghan massacre suspect charged with 17 murders

The charges against the sergeant came as Americans continued to seek an explanation for the massacre – which if proven would be the worst war crime perpetrated by an individual US soldier since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq started.

WASHINGTON // The US soldier accused of the March 11 massacre of Afghan villagers was charged yesterday with 17 counts of murder, six counts of attempted murder and six counts of aggravated assault.

Robert Bales is alleged to have walked more than 1.5 kilometres to kill 17 people - the military raised the count from 16 on Thursday without explanation. His victims included women and nine children. He is accused of killing his victims in their sleep and then trying to burn 11 of the bodies before returning to his base in southern Afghanistan.

Legal jurisdiction in the case was expected to be switched from the US Forces-Afghanistan in Kabul to Sgt Bales's home base of Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, US officials said.

The charges against the sergeant came as Americans continued to seek an explanation for the massacre - which if proven would be the worst war crime perpetrated by an individual US soldier since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq started.

The military has not given a motive for Sgt Bales' actions. Nevertheless, a picture is emerging of a soldier who had been stretched to breaking point after serving four tours of duty. The suggestion by US military officials is that Sgt Bales simply "snapped" under stress from money woes and a brain injury suffered in Iraq.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can have dramatic consequences, not least combined with brain trauma, experts said. But some, including a former soldier, suggested that painting a picture of a lone soldier gone awry serves as an easy answer for a US public grasping for an explanation.

The narrative that Sgt Bales "just snapped" serves, of course, his defence, should it seek to pursue some kind of temporary insanity claim.

How the defence will shape up is not clear. It could be months before there is a public hearing and John Henry Browne, Sgt Bales's lawyer, appeared to be keeping his options open. On Thursday, he said Sgt Bales had no memory of the massacre and was "in shock" at the allegations against him.

"My meetings with him clearly indicate to me that he's got memory problems that go back long before that," Mr Browne told the television news programme This Morning on Thursday.

But Mr Browne also said there was a lack of evidence against his client and told The Washington Post that it would be a "hard case for the government to prove".

The US media has featured numerous interviews with friends, fellow soldiers and neighbours of Sgt Bales, 38, a father of two.

Most have painted a picture of a family man, worn down by the demands of war, a little frustrated by being overlooked for a promotion, but otherwise, according to one neighbour, "a good guy who got put in the wrong place at the wrong time".

Reports of drunken altercations and domestic tensions have also emerged. Sgt Bales, moreover, is a former financial adviser who in 2003 - not long after he joined the army - was ordered to repay former clients more than US$1.5 million (Dh5.5m) after being found guilty of fraud. It was not clear whether the money was ever repaid. No criminal charge against Sgt Bales was filed.

Jacob George, 29, a former paratrooper who served three tours in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2004, suggested the military had to bear at least half the responsibility for the massacre. The army has to ensure that its soldiers are fit "both physically and mentally" before combat, said Mr George, a member of Iraq Veterans against the War.

Sgt Bales should not be "used as a scapegoat" to absolve the US military of responsibility for "what we are asking these people to do over and over and over again".

He was not hopeful of that happening though.

"The department of defence has become master of the myth of the bad apple," Mr George said. "Whenever something like this happens, it is absolutely essential that it is framed that way."

 

okarmi@thenational.ae