US soldier due in court over Afghan massacre
LOS ANGELES - Agence France-Presse
Afghan boys look at a U.S. soldier of B Troop, 1st squadron of 4th US Cavalry Regiment as he patrols the town of Sar Howza in Paktika province October 30, 2012. REUTERS PhotoA US soldier accused of killing 16 Afghan villagers is due in court Monday for the first time since the March massacre, in a pre-trial hearing to decide if he should face a full court martial.
Staff Sergeant Robert Bales is expected to attend throughout the Nov 5-16 Article 32 hearing at Fort Lewis-McChord in the western state of Washington, base spokesman Gary Dangerfield told AFP.
Relatives of the victims and witnesses could testify via videolink from a US air base in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan, according to media reports, although the spokesman could not confirm that. Bales, 39, is accused of leaving his base in the Panjwayi district of Kandahar province on the night of March 11 to commit the killings, which included nine children. He allegedly set several of their bodies on fire.
The killings are thought to be the deadliest crime by a US soldier during the decade-long conflict and tested Washington and Kabul's already tense relationship to the limit.
Bales was transferred from Afghanistan back to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas shortly after the massacre, before being moved back to Fort Lewis-McChord recently, home base of the US 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment.
His wife and two children were moved to the sprawling military base south of Seattle for their own security, and to shield them from the glare of the media in the wake of the killings.
Bales' Seattle-based lawyer, John Browne, said more than 10 Afghans could be called to testify, adding that some witnesses have been "difficult to round up," according to the Seattle Times.
Browne was expected to travel to Afghanistan to question the witnesses for himself, while other staff from his law office would remain at the proceedings in Fort Lewis-McChord, the newspaper reported.
"This may be our only shot at them, if they don't show up for the trial," he was quoted as saying, adding: "So this (hearing) becomes more important." Browne's office did not immediately return calls for comment or confirmation of the plans. He has previously said that Bales cannot remember anything of the killings. Reports suggest he may have been drinking before the massacre, and been traumatized when a colleague was seriously injured next to him.
The decision to whisk him back to the US triggered anger from locals, many of whom called for him to be tried in Afghanistan for the rampage.
Relatives and victims have since been paid tens of thousands of dollars in compensation -- families of the dead got 2.3 million Afghanis ($46,000) each while the injured received 500,000 Afghanis, Afghan officials said.
Bales -- who prosecutors say returned to his base and turned himself in after the shooting rampage -- has been described as "a likeable guy," always laughing and quick with a joke.
A decorated veteran who did three tours in Iraq and deployed to Afghanistan in December, Bales was raised in Norwood, Ohio, outside of Cincinnati. People remember him there as a leader and a good American football player.
After studying economics he worked as a financial advisor, and news reports have said he owes $1.5 million from a 2003 arbitration ruling in which he was found guilty of securities fraud.
Bales joined the army two months after the September 11, 2001 attacks, and more than a year after the fraud complaint was filed.
He has also had minor scrapes with the law -- fined for an assault on a girlfriend and cited for a hit-and-run accident -- but his finances seemed a greater problem.
Bales was also disappointed last year when he was passed over for promotion and a pay raise by the army.
His wife Karilyn wrote about it in what appeared to be her blog's last entry, calling it a disappointment "after all the work Bob has done and all the sacrifices he has made for his love of his country, family and friends."