A US soldier has been sentenced to life in prison without a chance of release for massacring 16 Afghan men, women and children last year. Staff Sergeant Robert Bales had pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty.
A military jury announced the sentence Friday after just two hours of deliberation.
During the closing arguments, prosecutors had said that the sergeant's own "stomach-churning" words proved he had acted with premeditation when he carried out the March 2012 predawn attack on two villages in Kandahar province. Arguing that the defendant should not get parole, prosecutor Lieutenant Colonel Jay Morse showed jurors photos of a young girl the sergeant killed as she screamed and cried. The prosecutor also screened a surveillance video of Bales returning to his base with "the methodical, confident gait of a man who's accomplished his mission."
On his fourth combat deployment, Bales shot his victims and set some of their bodies on fire with a kerosene lantern. According to the prosecution, Bales left his outpost twice during the night, returning in the middle of his rampage to tell a fellow soldier, "I just shot up some people."
"He wiped out generations and he ruined lives forever," Morse said. "He should be known by one official title from this day until the day he dies: inmate."
Several survivors and family members of the victims flew to the United States to testify this week, and one cursed Bales for attacking villagers as some slept and others screamed for mercy.
"If someone loses one child, you can imagine how devastated their life would be," said Haji Mohammad Wazir, who lost 11 family members, including his mother, wife and six of his seven children.
Bales took the stand Thursday to apologize, calling the attack an act of cowardice. He described the trouble he had readjusting to civilian life after his deployments to Iraq, becoming angry all the time, drinking heavily and quitting counseling because he didn't think it had worked and he didn't want others to think him weak. He said his rage had worsened when he deployed to Afghanistan in late 2011.
His defense team also did their best to paint a sympathetic picture. Attorney Emma Scanlan read from letters sent by the sergeant's fellow soldiers, including one who wrote that a decade of seeing his fellow soldiers killed and maimed left Bales in a darkness that "swallowed him whole." His attorneys also suggested that post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury may have played a role in the killings, but offered no testimony from psychiatrists or other doctors.
Scanlan said no one could minimize the atrocities, but she urged jurors to consider his military service - Bales committed the massacre on his fourth combat deployment - and give him a "sliver of light": a sentence of life with the possibility of parole after 20 years. The jury ultimately differed, and also gave Bales a dishonorable discharge and ordered him to forfeit all pay and benefits.
The sergeant's mother sobbed. A translator gave a thumbs-up to the Afghan survivors of the massacre who had earlier testified in the hearing.
mkg/dr (Reuters, AFP, AP)