Criminal charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) were formally preferred Friday against U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, who killed 17 Afghan civilians earlier this month, said the U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
The charges against the U.S. soldier allege that,on or about March 11, Bales with premeditation did murder 17 Afghan civilians and assaulted and attempted to murder six other civilians at or near the Belambey army base, Panjwai district of south Afghanistan 's Kandahar province, the U.S. military said in a mid-night statement.
Previously, Afghan officials in Kabul and local villagers in Panjwai believed that 16 civilians including nine children and three women were killed in the bloody pre-dawn shooting.
The shooting spree has sparked a strong anti-American fury in Afghanistan. Despite Afghans' strong demand that the suspect be tried publicly in the country, the U.S. side transferred the trouble-making soldier back to the United States out of "legal considerations."
The U.S. army statement said that Bales has been assigned to 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment (Rear) (Provisional), headquartered at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, and currently he is in pre-trial confinement at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
The charges could lead to the death penalty for the 38-year-old U.S. soldier in the massacre of Afghan civilians, said the press release. "Under the UCMJ, the maximum possible punishment for a premeditated murder conviction is a dishonorable discharge from the Armed Forces, reduction to the lowest enlisted grade, total forfeiture of pay and allowances, and death (with a mandatory minimum sentence of imprisonment for life with eligibility for parole)," it said. The statement did not give details about the killings or the ongoing investigations. It remains unclear about the motive of the killing but some U.S. officials said the killer soldier was suffering a mental breakdown.
A week ago, however, a probe team of the Afghan parliament after visiting the villages said that more than a dozen U.S. soldiers had been involved in the Kandahar killing, claiming that two groups of U.S. soldiers totaling 15 to 20 troops carried out the planned attack with air support.
The shooting incident further strained the wary ties between Washington and Kabul, which has already been clouded by other recent incidents including the burning of Qurans at a U.S. base in Afghanistan in February and reports of U.S. service members urinating on the corpses of Taliban soldiers in January.