KABUL - Charges against an American soldier accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians 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 specialist with the US military familiar with the investigation.
The suspect’s lead lawyer, John Henry Browne of Seattle, said he planned to meet Monday with Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, who is being held in an isolated cell at the military prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
Bales, 38, has not been charged in the shootings, which have endangered relations between the United States and Afghanistan and threaten to upend US policy over the decade-old war.
The Lake Tapps, Wash., resident is suspected of leaving a US base in southern Afghanistan, entering homes and shooting nine children, four men, and three women before dawn on March 11.
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 military legal specialist said.
Military lawyers say once attorneys investigating the alleged crimes have what they believe to be a solid understanding of what happened and are satisfied with the evidence collected, they will draft charges and present them to a commander. The commander will then decide whether there is probable cause to believe that an offense was committed and that the accused committed it.
Bales’s legal team said in a statement that “it is too early to determine what factors may have played into this incident, and the defense team looks forward to reviewing the evidence, examining all of Sergeant Bales’s medical and personnel records, and interviewing witnesses.’’
The lawyers’ statement also said that Bales’s family was “stunned in the face of this tragedy, but they stand behind the man they know as a devoted husband, father, and dedicated member of the armed services.’’
Court records and interviews in recent days have revealed that Bales had a string of commendations for good conduct after four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. But he also faced a trouble in recent years: a Florida investment job went sour, his Seattle-area home was condemned as he struggled to make payments on another, and he failed to get a recent promotion.
Legal troubles included charges that he assaulted a girlfriend and, in a hit-and run accident, ran bleeding in military clothes into the woods, court records show. He told police he fell asleep at the wheel and paid a fine to get the charges dismissed, the records show.
Organizations and individuals with differing agendas have portrayed Bales as the personification of something that is profoundly broken and have seized on his case to question the war itself or to argue that the American government is asking too much of its warriors.
On the website of Iraq Veterans Against the War, an organizer, Aaron Hughes, declared that Afghan war veterans “believe that this incident is not a case of one ‘bad apple’ but the effect of a continued US military policy of drone strikes, night raids, and helicopter attacks where Afghan civilians pay the price.’’ Those veterans, he wrote, “hope that the Kandahar massacre will be a turning point’’ in the war.
But Fred Wellman, a retired Army lieutenant colonel from Fredericksburg, Va., said Bales’s neighbors and lawyer were wrong to fuel the notion of “the broken veteran.’’
Wellman concedes that 10 years of war have severely strained the service. But while others might see Bales as a wounded soul, Wellman sees a man who sneaked off base to commit his alleged crimes, then had the presence of mind to “lawyer up’’ as soon as he was caught.
“That may play well with certain circles of the civilian community, which doesn’t understand our lives,’’ Wellman said. “But he’s going to be tried by a military court . . . and chances are three or four of those guys had things happen to them, may have had three or four tours, may have lost people, may have been blown up. And none of them snapped and killed 16 people.’’
“It’s just too easy, and a lot of us, we’re not buying it,’’ he said.
The shootings have further strained ties between the US government and President Hamid Karzai, who has accused the military of not cooperating with a delegation he appointed to investigate the killings in Panjwai district of Kandahar Province.
The Afghan investigative team 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 US soldiers in the villages. It is unclear whether the soldiers the villagers saw were part of a search party that left the base to look for Bales, who was reported missing.
Allegations that 16 to 20 people were involved in the killings are “completely false,’’ according to a US official familiar with the case who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the investigation.