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November 13, 2012

Afghan killings case testing military system

NORMAN — JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. — The U.S. military has been criticized for its spotty record on convicting troops of killing civilians, but a hearing against Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales involving a massacre in Afghanistan has shown that it isn’t like most cases.

Government prosecutors have built a strong eyewitness case against the veteran soldier, with troops recounting how they saw Bales return to the base covered in blood. And in unusual testimony in a military court, Afghan civilians questioned via a video link described the horror of seeing 16 people killed in their villages.

Law experts say the case could test whether the military, aided by technology, is able to embark on a new era of accountability.

Bales faces 16 counts of premeditated murder and six counts of attempted murder. The preliminary hearing, which began Nov. 5 and is scheduled to end with closing arguments today, will determine whether he faces a court-martial. He could face the death penalty if convicted.

The U.S. military system’s record has shown it is slow to convict service members of alleged war crimes.

A range of factors make prosecuting troops for civilian deaths in foreign lands difficult, including gathering eyewitness testimony and collecting evidence at a crime scene in the midst of a war.

At Bales’ preliminary hearing, the prosecution accommodated the Afghan witnesses by providing the video link and holding the sessions at night. The military said it intends to fly the witnesses from Afghanistan to Joint Base Lewis-McChord if there is a court martial.

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