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Bales hearing on Afghan killings a test for US military

Video links with civilians hint new accountability

JOINT BASE LEWIS-Mc­CHORD, Wash. — The US military has been criticized for its spotty record on convicting troops of killing civilians, but a hearing against Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales involving a massacre in Afghanistan has shown that it is not 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.

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And in unusual testimony in a military court, Afghan civilians questioned via a video link described the horror of seeing 16 people killed, mostly children, in their villages earlier this year.

Legal analysts said 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 Tuesday, will determine whether he faces a court martial.

He could face the death penalty if convicted.

The US 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’s preliminary hearing, the prosecution accommodated the Afghan witnesses, including children, 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.

Prosecutors said Bales, 39, slipped away from remote Camp Belambay to attack two villages early on March 11, killing 16 civilians, including nine children.

The slayings drew such angry protests that the United States temporarily halted combat operations in Afghanistan, and it was three weeks before American investigators could reach the crime scenes.

Through a video monitor in a military courtroom near Seattle, Bales saw Afghan girls smile beneath bright head coverings before they described the bloodbath he is accused of committing.

He saw boys fidget as they remembered how they hid behind curtains when a gunman killed people in their village and one other.

And he saw dignified, bearded men who spoke of unspeakable carnage — the piled, burned bodies of children and parents alike.

From the other side of that video link, in Afghanistan, one of the men saw something else — signs that justice will be done.

‘‘I saw the person who killed my brother sitting there, head down with guilt,’’ Haji Mullah Baraan said Monday.

‘‘He didn’t look up toward the camera.’’

Baraan was one of many Afghan witnesses who testified in Bales’s case by video over the weekend. ‘‘We got great hope from this,’’ he said.

Throughout history, troops have been accused of heinous crimes involving civilians in countries where wars are waged.

But rarely have villagers who witnessed the horror testified in a US military court — often because of the costs and logistics of bringing them to the United States.

Villagers may be leery to leave their homeland to go to a foreign country and confront members of one of the mightiest militaries in the world. And as foreign nationals, they cannot be subpoenaed.

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