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Death Penalty Sought For US Soldier Accused Of Afghan Civilians Massacre

US military prosecutors on Wednesday sought death penalty for Army Sgt. Robert Bales, who stands accused of killing 16 villagers, including nine children, in a nocturnal shooting rampage in southern Afghanistan earlier this year.

Military prosecutor Maj Rob Steele made the demand during a preliminary hearing being held at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State. Wrapping up the prosecution's final arguments, Steele demanded that that capital punishment be handed down to Bales due to the heinous nature of his crime.

"Based on the sheer brutality and nature of the crimes, it is our recommendation to proceed to a general court-martial. Because of the heinous, brutal and methodical (nature of the alleged crimes), we ask that that the sentencing authority have the full range of punishment," Steele said.

"The most telling evidence we have are the statements made by Sergeant Bales in the few hours (after the incident) -- statements that demonstrate a clear memory of what happened and a clear sense of guilt," he added.

Nevertheless, Sgt Bales' lawyer Emma Scanlan insisted at the hearing that the evidence presented against her client was not enough to subject him to a court martial. Scanlan noted that there were inconsistencies regarding the case, pointing out that testimonies by some Afghan witnesses suggested the involvement of more than one shooter.

"There are a number of questions that have not been answered," she said. "We need to know if there was more than one person outside that wire. We don't know so many things about this case... we ask that everybody keep an open mind as we go forward as we investigate what is actually going on here."

The preliminary hearing, which involved testimony from several witnesses in Afghanistan, is the first step in the military justice process. Lead investigator who presided over the inquiry, Col. Lee Deneke, said Tuesday that he would submit a written recommendation "later this week or over the weekend" to a senior general whether the accused should be subjected to a court martial.

Bales has been charged with 16 counts of premeditated murder and six counts of attempted murder in connection with the March 11 massacre, which is now considered as one of the worst atrocities of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Bales is also accused of using drugs and alcohol while deployed.

According to the official version of the events, Bales walked out of his military base in Panjwai district around 03:00 am local time on March 11, and gunned down civilians in four houses in two neighboring villages in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar.

The rogue soldier, who is said to have been suffering from a nervous breakdown, then surrendered to US military authorities at the base. Some of his colleagues testified during the course of the hearing, which began on November 5, that Bales covered in blood when he returned to their base on the night of the shooting. The blood found on Bales' clothing has since been forensically matched those of some of the victims.

Nevertheless, Afghan officials have questioned the US claim that only one errant American soldier was involved in the incident, pointing out that the accounts of villagers targeted in the shooting indicate that multiple US soldiers took part in the massacre.

Despite the demand for trying the accused publicly in Afghanistan, the U.S. military flew him to Kuwait on March 14 and ferried him to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, where he was held in pre-trial confinement for months before being transferred to Lewis-McChord last month.

Bales, who did not testify or enter a formal plea during the preliminary hearing, could face the death penalty if found guilty of the most serious charges during his possible court martial. Incidentally, no US service member has been executed since 1961. Although six US soldiers are currently on death row, they were convicted of killing US citizens, and not foreign nationals as in Bales' case.

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