SEATTLE — The lawyer for a U.S. Army sergeant suspected of killing 16 Afghan villagers says he is flying to Kansas to meet with his client.
John Henry Browne of Seattle says he plans to meet with Robert Bales Monday. Sergeant Bales is being held in an isolated cell at a military prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
The 10-year veteran hasn’t been charged yet in the shootings, which have endangered relations between the United States and Afghanistan and threaten to upend U.S. policy over the decade-old war.
Charges against Sergeant Bales are expected to be filed within a week, and if the case goes to court the trial will be held in the United States, said a legal expert with the U.S. military familiar with the investigation.
Sergeant Bales is suspected of leaving a U.S. base in southern Afghanistan, entering homes, and gunning down nine children, four men, and three women before dawn on March 11. The 38-year-old married father of two from Lake Tapps, Wash. grew up in Norwood, Ohio.
The shootings have further strained ties between the U.S. government and President Hamid Karzai, who has accused the U.S. military of not cooperating with a delegation he appointed to investigate the killings in Panjwai district of Kandahar province. The Afghan investigative team also is not convinced that one soldier could have single-handedly left his base, walked to two villages, shot and killed 16 civilians, and set fire to some of their bodies.
Syed Mohammad Azeen, a tribal elder from Balandi village, said Sunday in Kandahar that he and other villagers believe more than a dozen soldiers were involved. Other villagers said they saw 16 to 20 U.S. troops in the villages. It’s unclear whether the soldiers the villagers saw were part of a search party that left the base to look for Sergeant Bales, who was reported missing.
Allegations that 16 to 20 people were involved in the killings are “completely false,” a U.S. official familiar with the case said.
Mr. Karzai seemed to endorse the skepticism about the U.S. account of a single shooter when he met with relatives of the victims in Kabul Friday in a meeting covered by the news media. He recounted a story from one of the families about women and children being killed in four different rooms of a house, dragged into one room, and set afire.
“That, one man cannot do,” Mr. Karzai said.
Many other officials and villagers have said it seemed impossible for a single soldier to carry out the attacks in both villages — one 1 kilometer north of the base and the other 1.5 kilometers south of the base. But the timeline is unclear. Some villagers have said the attacks, which they claim started around 2:30 a.m., occurred at separate times over an hour. Others have said attacks occurred simultaneously in the two villages.
In Washington, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States said Sunday that he believes the alleged shooter will be brought to justice.
But Eklil Hakimi, appearing on CNN Sunday, indicated that relations between the two nations have been frayed by the shootings and violent protests across Afghanistan that broke out after Qur’ans were burned at a U.S. military base. The two nations also are engaged in tense negotiations on a strategic partnership agreement that will govern the U.S. footprint in the country after most combat forces pull out by the end of 2014.
The ambassador also defended his president’s harsh comments about America, saying that Hamid Karzai was only reflecting the sentiments of his public, “as any legitimate president would do.”
Mr. Hakimi was reacting to Mr. Karzai’s referring to Americans as “demons,” and his comment that the alleged killing of 16 unarmed Afghans by a U.S. soldier was “not the first incident; it was the 100th, the 200th, and 500th incident.”
Asked if such comments risk turning Americans against support of Kabul, Mr. Hakimi said, “Sometimes in the media, they are putting that out of the context.”
Mr. Hakimi’s comments came at a time of strain in the U.S.-Afghan relationship. While Mr. Karzai desperately needs U.S. money and military support to sustain his unpopular regime, the mass killing and other incidents have further jeopardized his domestic political support.
In an effort to prove only one perpetrator was involved in the shootings, the U.S. military has shown Afghan officials footage from a surveillance video that shows a soldier walking up to the base, laying down his weapon, and raising his arms in surrender.
Mr. Karzai said Friday that the video, which was shot by an aerial blimp above the base, was “not convincing” and accused the United States of not cooperating with Afghan investigators.
The military denied the Afghan team’s request to interview Sergeant Bales because that would have violated his rights as an accused in the case, the U.S. official said.
The expert also said discussions are under way to determine the best way to compensate the relatives of the victims and those wounded.
Military officials have said that no operations were being conducted in the immediate area around the time of the early morning killings. Helicopter noises that villagers heard could have been choppers called in to evacuate five Afghan civilians injured in the shootings, the official said. Three of the injured who were flown to Kandahar Air Field were under 10, the official said.
Villagers from the area also have alleged that women were sexually assaulted during the rampage. The U.S. official said there was no evidence that any of the women were raped. Mr. Azeen, the trial elder, agreed. “Whoever is saying that should be ashamed,” he said.
If the suspect is brought to trial, it is possible that Afghan witnesses and victims would be flown to the United States to participate, the legal expert said.
Army Brig. Gen. Lewis Boone, chief of public affairs for the U.S.-led coalition and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, called the shooting rampage a “terrible and horrendous act,” but said the U.S. military could not jeopardize the case by disclosing details of the investigation.
“Whether you are an Afghan or an American, I think you’ll agree that the most important thing at the end of the day is that justice be done,” General Boone said.