Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who pleaded guilty to slaughtering 16 Afghan civilians inside their homes, will spend the rest of his life in prison, a military jury decided on Friday.
The decision came after three days of wrenching testimony that painted a moment-by-moment, bullet-by-bullet account of one of the worst atrocities of the U.S.’ long war in Afghanistan.
The six-member military jury considering Bales’ fate had two options: sentence him to life in prison with no possibility of parole, or allow him a chance at freedom after about 20 years behind bars. His guilty plea in June removed the death penalty from the table.
In pressing for mercy, the defence team said Bales had been a good soldier, a loving father and a stand-up friend before snapping after four combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. But prosecutors said he was a man frustrated with his career and family, easy to anger, whose rage erupted at the end of his M-4 rifle.
“He liked murder,” said a prosecutor, Lt. Col. Jay Morse, in closing arguments on Friday. “He liked the power it gave him.”
In the end, the jury sided with that argument. It deliberated for about 90 minutes before returning to a courtroom packed with soldiers, relatives of Bales, and nine Afghan men and boys who had testified earlier in the week about the harm Bales had inflicted on them and their families.
As the sentence was read, Bales showed no reaction. He will be dishonourably discharged.
Outside the court, the Afghan villagers told reporters that the sentence did little to ease their anger and loss. Many wanted Bales to be executed, and said his crimes represented the barest fraction of the pain and death that Afghans have endured over the last decade.
The men tugged at the maroon pants of a boy named Sadiqullah, revealing a leg scarred and disfigured by bullet wounds.
“We came all the way to the U.S. to get justice,” said Haji Mohammed Wazir, who lost 11 members of his family in the massacre. “We didn’t get that.”
The killings took place in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar province, in two villages that were little more than an assortment of mud-walled homes, with no electricity or running water, where residents cultivated wheat and other grains. On March 11, 2012, after a night of drinking alcohol and watching movies with other soldiers, Bales slipped away from his combat outpost and set off toward the villages. The Afghans recalled how he hit and kicked members of their family, gunned down defenceless old men, mothers and children, and set their bodies on fire.— New York Times News Service