US soldier behind Afghan massacre apologizes

By Jonathan Kaminsky ,Reuters

TACOMA, Washington — A decorated U.S. soldier who gunned down 16 unarmed Afghan civilians in a nighttime rampage last year apologized on Thursday at a sentencing hearing to determine his fate, calling the killings “an act of cowardice.”

Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, a veteran of four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, has admitted to shooting the villagers, mostly women and children, in attacks on their family compounds in Kandahar province in March 2012. “I am truly, truly sorry to all the people whose family members I have taken away. I have murdered their families,” Bales told a jury in a military courtroom in Washington state, choking up at times. “What I did is an act of cowardice behind a mask of fear, bullshit and bravado.”

Bales pleaded guilty to the killings in June in a deal that will spare him the death penalty. A jury of six military personnel will ultimately decide if he will spend the rest of his life in prison or be eligible for parole after 20 years. Closing arguments are due on Friday. Defense lawyers have been seeking to show that Bales carried out the killings after suffering a breakdown under the pressure of his final deployment to Afghanistan. They have argued that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and a brain injury even before his last deployment. “How do you explain that other than he snapped?” Bales’ civilian defense lawyer, John Henry Browne, told reporters after the session. “There’s really no other explanation.”

Army prosecutors have said Bales acted alone and with premeditation when, armed with a pistol, a rifle and a grenade launcher, he left his base twice during the night, returning in the middle of his rampage to tell a fellow soldier, “I just shot up some people.”

The killings marked the worst case of civilian deaths blamed on a rogue U.S. soldier since the Vietnam War and further eroded strained U.S.-Afghan relations after more than a decade of conflict in that country.