The US soldier who massacred 16 Afghan civilians last year in one of the worst atrocities of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars was given the most severe sentence possible: life in prison with no chance of release, but one that left surviving victims and relatives of the dead deeply unsatisfied.
US Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, 40, who pleaded guilty in June in a deal to avoid the death penalty, showed no emotion as the jury announced verdict on Friday after deliberating for less than two hours.
An interpreter flashed a thumbs-up sign to a row of Afghan villagers who were either wounded or lost family members in the March 11 attacks last year.
“We wanted this murderer to be executed,” said Hajji Mohammad Wazir, who lost 11 family members in the attack. “We were brought all the way from Afghanistan to see if justice would be served. Not our way — justice was served the American way.”
Bales’ mother, sitting in the front row of the court, 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 Naim, who was shot in the neck, said after the sentencing. “What about us? Our family members are actually 6 feet under.”
The villagers, who traveled nearly more than 11,000km to testify against Bales, spoke with reporters through an interpreter and asked what it would be like for someone to break into US homes and slaughter their families. A boy of about 13 displayed a scar from a bullet wound to his leg.
They also criticized the US’ involvement in Afghanistan, saying the soldiers who came to build their country have done no such thing.
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 on the killing mission, but he apologized on the witness stand on Thursday and described the slaughter as an “act of cowardice.”
The villagers said they had not read or listened to the apology. One, Mullah Baran, called it a “fraud.”
The six-member jury weighing whether he should be eligible for parole after 20 years took less than 90 minutes to decide the case in favor of prosecutors who described him as a “man of no moral compass.”
“In just a few short hours, Sergeant Bales wiped out generations,” US Lieutenant Colonel Jay Morse told the jury in his closing argument. “Sergeant Bales dares to ask you for mercy when he has shown none.”
A commanding general overseeing the court-martial has the option of reducing the sentence to life with the possibility of parole.
Defense attorney 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 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.
She also read from a letter sent by a captain who said that Bales seemed to have trouble handling a decade of war and death, and had written: “The darkness that had been tugging at him for the last 10 years swallowed him whole.”
Prosecutors laying out the case for a life term, argued that Bales’ own “stomach-churning” words demonstrated that he knew exactly what he was doing when he walked to the two nearby villages and shot 22 people — 17 of them women and children.
“My count is 20,” Bales told another soldier when he returned to the base.