Robert Bales trial opens as US sergeant charged with massacring 16 Afghans Soldier returned to camp in southern Afghanistan cove

Robert Bales trial opens as US sergeant charged with massacring 16 Afghans
Soldier returned to camp in southern Afghanistan covered in the blood of his victims, prosecutor says at preliminary hearing, Monday 5 November 2012 21.08 GMT

A US soldier accused of massacring 16 Afghan villagers returned to his base wearing a cape and with the blood of his victims on his rifle, belt, shirt and trousers, a military prosecutor said on Monday.

Staff Sgt Robert Bales was incredulous when fellow soldiers drew their weapons on him when he returned to Camp Belambay in southern Afghanistan last March, prosecutor Lt Col Jay Morse said as a preliminary hearing opened at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state.

Bales then turned to one sergeant at the scene and said: "Mac, if you rat me out ..." Morse said.

Prosecutors say Bales slipped out of a tiny, remote base that he shared with special forces troops in the early hours of 11 March. Armed with an assault rifle, he then allegedly headed into two poor villages in Kandahar province, the Taliban's heartland, and went on a murderous rampage in which six people were also injured.

The atrocity was the worst committed by US forces in Afghanistan since they helped topple the Taliban government in 2001. If found guilty, Bales, a 39-year-old father of two, could be executed.

The judicial process starts with a preliminary hearing that could last up to two weeks.

Bales, from Lake Tapps, Washington, sat beside one of his civilian lawyers, Emma Scanlan, in green fatigues as an investigating officer read the charges against him and informed him of his rights. Bales said "Sir, yes, sir" when asked if he understood them.

Morse said Bales seemed utterly normal in the hours before the killings. With his colleagues, Bales watched the movie Man on Fire, a fictional account of a former CIA operative on a revenge rampage.

Just before he left the base, Morse said, Bales told a special forces soldier that he was unhappy with his family life, and that the troops should have been quicker to retaliate for a roadside bomb attack that claimed one soldier's leg.

"At all times he had a clear understanding of what he was doing and what he had done," said Morse, who described Bales as lucid, coherent and responsive.

Witnesses to the killings are expected to appear over videolink from Afghanistan, and the court may also see images from a spy balloon that monitored Bales's base. Officially, the hearing is designed to assess whether he should face a full court martial, although Bales's defence lawyers say a full trial is inevitable.

"This hearing is important for all of us in terms of learning what the government can actually prove," Bales's lawyer, John Henry Browne, said. "The defence's job is to get as much information as possible. That's what our goal is, in preparation for what is certainly going to be a court martial."

Bales faces 16 counts of premeditated murder and six counts of attempted murder. He is also charged with assault, and using steroids and alcohol while deployed.

In Afghanistan there has been some anger that Bales was sent to the US rather than brought before an Afghan court near the site of the killings. Sardar Mohammad Nazari, then police chief in Kandahar's Panjwai district, where the massacre took place, said: "The people were very emotional after the killings and came to the district office and said 'We want justice. We want the Americans to hand the soldier over to us and we will punish him ourselves.'"

Most people in Panjwai district are convinced Bales is guilty of the killings.

The attacks were brutal, and some of the bodies were set on fire. Nine of the victims were children, and 11 were from the same family. But Bales remembers little or nothing from that evening, his lawyers say.