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Trial Urged for Suspect in Deadly Army Tent Attack

June 21, 2003|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

FT. KNOX, Ky. — An Army investigating officer recommended Friday that Sgt. Asan Akbar, a Los Angeles soldier accused of a grenade and rifle attack on his superior officers in Kuwait, stand trial at a general court-martial.

Lt. Col. Patrick Reinert ruled swiftly after the close of a weeklong preliminary hearing that the March 23 ambush was "a surprise attack executed by stealth." During the hearing, Army prosecutors and defense lawyers argued about whether Akbar planned the attack or whether he was being falsely accused because of his deeply held Islamic beliefs.

"There are reasonable grounds to believe the accused committed the offenses," Reinert said. "Due to the extremely serious nature of his office, I recommend that this case be referred to a general court-martial."

Reinert, a military reservist who also serves as an assistant federal prosecutor in Iowa, by law had about 10 days to make his recommendation. Instead, he announced his findings shortly after closing arguments.

Before the decision was announced, Akbar rocked nervously in his chair. Afterward, he showed little emotion, except an occasional deep shrug. A devout Muslim who is in the 101st Airborne Division, Akbar allegedly had expressed fears before the attack that American soldiers were going to "rape and plunder" Muslim women and children during the war with Iraq.

Reinert's recommendation now goes to Lt. Col. Peter DeLuca, who as Akbar's battalion commander could overrule the finding and suggest that Akbar be set free.

But if DeLuca does not overrule the decision, the case would be forwarded to Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus, who could dismiss the case or send Akbar to a general court-martial. Petraeus also could designate the matter as a capital murder case. DeLuca and Petraeus are serving in Iraq.

Two officers were killed and 14 others were wounded in the attack at Camp Pennsylvania in Kuwait near the Iraqi border. Akbar is charged with two counts of premeditated homicide and three counts of attempted murder.

Reinert, in announcing his findings, sided with the government's theory in the case. He noted that evidence showed bullet fragments and shell casings matched Akbar's rifle, that Akbar had "ample time" to take a cache of grenades and walk to the camp's headquarters' tents, and that an injury to Akbar's right knee suggests that he was close to the grenade explosions.

Reinert also discounted testimony from two witnesses who had insisted that Akbar did not match the description of the man they saw firing on officers as they ran from the burning tents. He noted that it was dark outside, and that evidence showed Akbar had turned off the exterior lights.

"The lights are off. It's a surprise attack. It's loud, dark and confusing," Reinert said. "This was a traumatic event witnessed by individuals who are suffering from that type of trauma. The accused had time to blend back into the chaos that he had caused in order to perpetrate his crime and get away with it."

In closing arguments, Army prosecutors told Reinert that their evidence provided "reasonable grounds" that Akbar carried out the 1:30 a.m. attack, hours before the unit was to muster out of Kuwait and head to Iraq.

But military defense lawyers said the government's case had too many "gaps," the crime scene was contaminated and two soldiers had insisted that Akbar did not match the description of the man they saw firing an M-4 rifle.

According to prosecutors, Akbar lobbed grenades into tents filled with sleeping Army officers. The tents burst into flames and injured officers screamed in pain, while other supervisors rushed outside, thinking that they were under attack from Iraqi forces. As they ran out, prosecutors said, Akbar fired his M-4 rifle, killing Capt. Christopher Seifert and wounding Maj. Kenneth Romaine. A second officer, Maj. Gregory Stone, later died from grenade wounds.

"It was a plan that was well thought-out with military precision," said Capt. Harper Cook, a member of the prosecution team. "Sgt. Akbar went beyond merely preparing to murder soldiers. He selected his weapons. He pulled the pins, he threw the grenades, and he shot two officers."

Tying Akbar to the case, Cook said, was an Army investigator who said reports showed that bullet fragments and shell casings matched Akbar's rifle, and Akbar's fingerprints were found on the outside light generator.

Cook noted that Akbar was wounded that night, yet never sought medical attention.

"When Sgt. Akbar was apprehended, he had to be treated for a fresh wound," Cook said. "He was wounded in the back of his right knee.... He was apprehended an hour after the attack. Yet during this time he never sought treatment. He tried to blend in instead."

In defending Akbar, Lt. Col. Victor Hansen said the government offered no expert witnesses to explain ballistic tests on the bullets and Akbar's rifle.

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