x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Afghans at court-martial describe pain from massacre by US soldier

An Afghan teenager who survived a rampage by a US soldier, who killed 16 unarmed civilians last year, testified about the pain of losing his grandmother, at the start of a sentencing trial for the man behind the carnage.

TACOMA, UNITED STATES // An Afghan teenager who survived a rampage by a US soldier, who killed 16 unarmed civilians last year, testified about the pain of losing his grandmother, at the start of a sentencing trial for the man behind the carnage.

The teenager, who was shot in the legs and whose sister was also seriously wounded and now has nightmares, was among a group of Afghan victims of the violence flown to the United States to testify on Tuesday about the effect of the killings.

"She loved me extra and every time I think of her I cry," said the boy, Rafiulla, who was believed to be15 years old. He spoke through an interpreter.

The testimony at a US military base in Washington state came shortly after a jury of six military personnel was impaneled to decide the fate of US army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, who pleaded guilty to the killings in June.

Bales, a veteran of four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, has admitted to gunning down the villagers, mostly women and children, in night-time attacks on their family compounds in Kandahar province in March 2012.

In exchange for his guilty plea, Bales will be spared the death penalty. The jury will determine whether he will spend the rest of his life in prison or be eligible for the possibility of parole after 20 years.

An Afghan farmer, who was said to be about 60, took the stand, cursing Bales before breaking down and pleading with the prosecutor not to ask him any more questions.

"This bastard stood right in front of me," said Haji Mohammad Naim. "I wanted to ask him: 'What did I do? What have I done to you?' And he shot me."

Mr Naim said he has numbness in his hand and a stutter since the shooting. He became emotional, often speaking over the interpreter, as the prosecutor asked what it was like to have someone come into his home uninvited. He eventually stood up and said he had had enough: "Don't ask me any more questions."

The prosecutor asked him for one more favour: to sit down and see whether the defence attorneys had any questions for him. He complied, but Bales' lawyers said they didn't need to ask him anything.

Prosecutors have said Bales acted alone and with chilling premeditation when, armed with a pistol, a rifle and a grenade launcher, he left his base twice during the night, returning in the middle of his rampage to tell a fellow soldier: "I just shot up some people."

The shootings marked the worst case of civilian slaughter blamed on a rogue US soldier since the Vietnam War and further eroded strained US-Afghan relations after more than a decade of conflict in that country.

Defence lawyers said on Monday that they would argue during the sentencing hearing that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a brain injury were factors in the killings. The lawyers have said Bales suffered from PTSD even before his deployment to Afghanistan.

Bales, who has claimed his memories of the killings are spotty, nevertheless acknowledged the killings upon pleading guilty and told the court in June there was "not a good reason in this world" for his actions.

During a nine-day pretrial hearing almost a year ago, witnesses testified that Bales had been upset by a bomb blast near his outpost that severed a fellow soldier's leg days before the shootings.

Prosecutors have said they hoped to show Bales had engaged in a pattern of bad behaviour that predated his multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

They also played for jurors taped telephone conversations between an incarcerated Bales and his wife, Kari, in which they laughed about the dropping of one charge levelled against him.

The proceedings at Lewis-McChord, a military base near Tacoma, Washington, are expected to last at least a week.

* Reuters with additional reporting by the Associated Press