Afghan villagers say life sentence too light for US soldier who slew 16 civilians

Villagers say Robert Bales, who killed 16 of their relatives, should have been sentenced to death

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 August, 2013, 7:56am

Afghan villagers who travelled to the United States to testify against soldier Robert Bales say they are far from satisfied with his life sentence for massacring 16 of their relatives.

A military jury on Friday sentenced the 40-year-old to life in prison without the possibility of release for his pre-dawn raids in Kandahar province in March 2012. It was the severest punishment possible after he pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty.

A total of nine Afghans were flown to the Joint Base Lewis-McChord military installation in Washington state to be present as Bales was sentenced.

Haji Wazeer, who saw 11 members of his family killed by Bales, led the calls for the soldier to be put to death.

"We were brought all the way here from Afghanistan to see if justice would be served, but not in our way," he said. "Justice was served the American way. We wanted this murderer to be executed but we didn't get our wish.

"He only got a life sentence without parole, but I'm asking average Americans right here - if somebody jumps into your house in the middle of the night, kills 11 members of your family and tries to burn them, what sort of punishment would you be passing on that person?"

Bales' mother bowed her head, rocked in her seat and wept as the sentence was read.

"I saw his mother trying to cry, but at least she can go visit him," Hajji Mohammad Naeem, 60, who was shot in the neck, said. "What about us? Our family members are six feet under."

Bales, a father of two, never offered an explanation as to why he armed himself with a 9mm pistol and an M-4 rifle and left his post to go on his killing mission, but he apologised on the witness stand and described the slaughter as an "act of cowardice".

The six-member jury weighing whether Bales should be eligible for parole after 20 years took less than 90 minutes to decide the case in favour of the prosecutors, who described him as a "man of no moral compass".

A commanding general overseeing the court-martial has the option of reducing the sentence to life with a possibility of parole.

Defence lawyer Emma Scanlan begged the jurors in her closing to consider her client's prior life and years of good military service, and suggested he snapped under the weight of his fourth combat deployment.

She read from a letter Bales sent to his children 10 weeks before the killing: "The children here are a lot like you. They like to eat candy and play soccer. They all know me because I juggle rocks for them."

"These aren't the words of a cold-blooded murderer," Scanlan said.

Prosecutors laying out the case for a life term, argued that Bales' own "stomach-churning" words demonstrated he knew exactly what he was doing when he walked to the two nearby villages, shooting 22 people in all - 17 of them women and children, some of them as they screamed for help, others as they slept.

Associated Press, Agence France-Presse