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Prosecutors in Afghanistan massacre case face tough challenge

Authorities charge Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales with murdering 16 villagers, but they have limited access to evidence and key witnesses won't testify.

November 04, 2012|By Kim Murphy and Ned Parker, Los Angeles Times

"I saw the man in the door and my grandmother crying and screaming," said a teenager named Rafiullah, who, like many Afghans, uses only one name. Rafiullah said he, his sister and grandmother ran next door and joined several others at the home of Haji Naim.

"The room was a mess, everyone was screaming.... Haji Naim stood up and demanded what is going on. And the American shot him," he said. "We were seven people in the room when we were shot. My grandmother, my sister, me, two of Haji Naim's kids and two of Haji Nizar's kids."

The youth swept his hand in front of him as if raking a room with gunfire. "He used a pistol," he said. Four people, including Rafiullah's grandmother, died in Alkozai. Six people, among them Rafiullah and his sister, were injured.

On his second foray, the gunman rampaged first through Wazir's house in Najiban and then burst into the home of Mohammed Daoud on the outskirts. He was muttering "Taliban, Taliban" as he pulled Daoud out of his bed, said Daoud's 10-year-old son, Hikmatullah Gul, who hid under a blanket.

He said his father was calling "Have mercy!" before he was shot. "There was so much blood from my father," he said. "But the American came again and tore everything apart. Broke windows. Threw a closet to the floor.... The whole house cried."

Both youths described seeing bright lights outside the houses during the attacks. Some villagers talked of seeing multiple soldiers, but U.S. authorities said they probably saw troops who descended on the hamlets to investigate the attacks.

Bales, a father of two who lived in a two-story home near Lake Tapps, Wash., will probably not undergo much psychological scrutiny during the hearing. His lawyer, John Henry Browne, said it was obvious he was competent to stand trial. Yet the issue of whether he was mentally incapacitated, perhaps because of long-standing stress from four combat deployments, could play a crucial role if the case goes to a court-martial.

Browne said a military mental health review board would perform an evaluation sometime after the hearing and probably consider among other things Bales' use of steroids, which have been linked anecdotally in other cases to episodes of increased aggression.

The more immediate issues will probably focus on whether Bales made any statements to fellow soldiers that might be seen as a confession, and how firmly Army investigators can link Bales to specific victims.

The defense lawyer also is compiling a "mitigation package" that will detail several traumatic incidents Bales suffered during his previous deployments. One of them, Browne said, resembles a true incident, retold in the 2007 film "In the Valley of Elah," in which U.S. soldiers ran over an Iraqi child. "It deeply affected him; it profoundly affected him," he said.

It is not possible, Browne has said, to pass judgment on what Bales did or didn't do in time of war without also looking at what the war did to Bales.

"I believe we all have a responsibility to Sgt. Bales, and to all these soldiers," he said. "They're trying to do the impossible. I've got six clients right now that are all Afghanistan veterans, all of whom are in trouble with the law in varying degrees of severity."

The U.S. government has paid families $50,000 for each death and $10,000 for each of those injured, but villagers say money is scant compensation.

"If your child dies, what would you expect? Money? No," said Wazir, who denied taking the compensation. "Will you expect prison? We don't want prison.... If the court doesn't go the way we want, we will not accept the decision of the court."

Only one family is left in the area of Alkozai where Rafiullah lived; he and his grandfather moved to another village. Najiban is a ghost town; residents fled, fearing the Americans and the Taliban. Wazir has moved 2 1/2 hours away to live with his brother in Spin Buldak. He and the others are still haunted by the killings.

Rafiullah said: "I see his face in my dreams, and sometimes I hear my sister waking up at the same time, screaming. I am praying every night, please God don't make this happen again."

Parker reported from Kabul and Murphy from Seattle. Times staff writer David S. Cloud in Washington contributed to this report.

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