A US soldier accused of killing 16 Afghan villagers was “lucid” and admitted to the crimes, witnesses and prosecutors said as he appeared in court for the first time Monday, with military prosecutors seeking the death penalty for the soldier.
Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, 39, made international headlines earlier this year when he ventured out of his camp on two revenge-fueled drunken forays to massacre victims including women and children in two nearby villages.
The court heard that Bales a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, had been drinking whisky and watching a violent action movie with comrades before heading out of his base twice.
But prosecutors said that the soldier was “lucid” and “coherent” when carrying out the murders, an assertion which denies earlier claims from his wife and lawyer that Bales could not remember what he did on the night of March 11 in the Panjwayi district of Kandahar province.
“He was lucid, he was coherent, he was responsive,” said prosecutor Joseph Morse at the Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, adding that Bales had admitted to the crimes, reportedly saying: “It’s bad, really bad,” AFP news agency reported.
Sporting a shaved head and wearing fatigues, Bales answered the judge’s questions in a clear voice, responding: “Sir, yes sir.” He alternated between sitting forward and slumping against the back of his chair.
But prosecutors refuted that claim Monday, at the start of a two-week so-called Article 32 hearing held to determine if he should face a full court martial over the killings, the worst US military crime in the decade-old war.
The lead prosecutor, Lieutenant Colonel Jay Morse, told a preliminary hearing he would present evidence proving “chilling premeditation” on the part of Staff Sergeant Robert Bales
Morse said he was submitting a “capital referral” in the case, requesting that Bales be executed if convicted.
The shootings of mostly women and children in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province in March marked the worst case of civilian slaughter blamed on an individual U.S. soldier since the Vietnam War and eroded already strained U.S.-Afghan ties after more than a decade of conflict in the country.
According to Morse, Bales had been drinking with two fellow soldiers before he left his base, Camp Belambay, and went to a village where he committed the first killings.
Morse said Bales then returned to the camp and told a drinking buddy, Sergeant Jason McLaughlin, “I just shot up some people,” before leaving for a second village and killing more people. Morse called Bales’ actions “deliberate, methodical.”
According to McLaughlin, Bales asked him to smell his rifle and said “I’ll be back at 5 [a.m.]. You got me?” McLaughlin said he did not think Bales was serious, and “didn’t think too much about it,” going back to sleep for guard duty that started at 3 a.m.
McLaughlin, who did not believe Bales and was annoyed at being woken up, recalled the following exchange:
Bales: “I’ll be back at 5 [a.m.]. You got me?”
“Whatever, Bob,” McLaughlin replied.
“Take care of my kids,” Bales said, grabbing McLaughlin’s hand.
“No Bob, take care of your own kids,” McLaughlin replied.
“No, take care of my kids,” Bales repeated.
“OK Bob,” McLaughlin said.
‘Wearing a cloak’
Prosecutors showed a video shot by night-vision camera from a surveillance balloon over the camp, showing a figure they identified as Bales walking back to the post wearing a dark blue bed sheet or throw rug tied around his neck like a cloak.
He is seen being confronted by three soldiers, including the two men prosecutors said he had been drinking with, who ordered him to drop his weapons and took him into custody as he is heard saying, “Are you ******* kidding me?”
One of the three, Corporal David Godwin, testified that Bales kept repeating the words, “I thought I was doing the right thing,” and “It’s bad. It’s bad. It’s really bad.” Several witnesses said Bales’ trousers were spattered with blood. One said he had a “ghost-like look.”
Godwin recounted that he, Bales and McLaughlin had been drinking whiskey together in McLaughlin’s room while watching the Hollywood film “Man on Fire,” which stars Denzel Washington as a former assassin bent on revenge.
Several witnesses from the camp said Bales had been aggrieved over the lack of action over an improvised explosive device attack on a patrol near the camp several days earlier, in which one U.S. soldier lost the lower part of a leg.
Prosecutors said Bales had been armed with a rifle, a pistol and a grenade launcher on the night in question, and that the killings took place over a five-hour period in two villages. The dead included members of four families, most shot in the head.