Suspected rampage shooter Sgt. Robert Bales has been charged on Friday with 17 counts of premeditated murder. The news comes as Afghan villagers say they were threatened with a revenge raid by US soldiers.
On Thursday military officials announced they had changed the number of victims to 17, although earlier Bales was previously accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians – nine children and seven adult villagers. No explanation as to how the change came about was given.
The charges have been read today, but it could be months before any public hearing.
The maximum punishment for a premeditated murder conviction is death, dishonorable discharge from the armed forces, reduction to the lowest enlisted grade and total forfeiture of pay and allowances. The mandatory minimum sentence is life imprisonment with the chance of parole.
The 38-year-old American soldier and father of two, is accused of committing an awful act of violence while serving in Afghanistan. Two weeks ago he allegedly left his base in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province and shot 17 Afghans in two nearby villages.
His victims were sleeping in their beds when Bales allegedly shot them. The prosecution also says he burned some of the bodies.
Yet the Afghan investigators who made a separate inquiry say they are convinced that it takes more than one to kill so many people in two villages within one hour. They are considering the possibility that a number of American soldiers were involved in the massacre, as 15 to 20 of them split into two groups.
At the meeting with Afghan President Karzai, relatives of the victims insisted there was more than one shooter.
But despite this evidence the US authorities declined to cooperate with the Afghans.
The US military authorities are under fire as they allegedly failed to expose a potential rampage shooter on time. The soldier, who suffered a traumatic brain injury, was allowed to continue service without appropriate expertise.
The Army diagnosed more than 76,000 soldiers with PTSD between 2000 and 2011. Of those more than 65,000 were diagnosed at some stage of their deployment.
Robert Bales was on his fourth tour of duty, this time in Afghanistan, having served three tours in Iraq. It is still unclear if he was ever diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
But US officials say that even if the alleged shooter had been, that alone would not have prevented him from being sent back to war.
If the suspected mental breakdown is confirmed, the US military may fall under heavy criticism. Especially now, when statistics say the US troops in Afghanistan have experienced high rates of post-traumatic stress and brain injuries.
Iraq War veteran and anti-war activist Jayel Aheram told RT that the real criminals in this case are the US leaders who continue to perpetuate this war. “They ought to be the ones facing trial.”
Despite the Robert Bales case being exceptional and rare it was “inevitable,” he believes. “When you train men to hate the enemy, you train men to kill the enemy. It’s the nature of modern warfare.”
Therefore the violence in Afghanistan will continue until the US gets out of the country, Aheram claims. “The United States needs to leave the Afghan people alone for this to stop.”
The Pentagon now has to deal with accusations by Afghans that it was not an accidental shooting committed by a possibly mentally-unstable soldier, but rather a planned revenge by US troops.
Residents from the villages where the rampage took place claim soon after a roadside bomb accident that happened on March 7 or 8, some US soldiers came and threatened that the habitants would be punished for what they called “supporting anti-US forces”.
"The soldiers called all the people to come out of their houses and from the mosque," Ghulam Rasool, a tribal elder from Panjwai district said.
According to Rasool, the soldiers told the villagers: “A bomb exploded on our vehicle. We will get revenge for this incident by killing at least 20 of your people.”
Resident of Mokhoyan village Naek Mohammad also described how the soldiers assembled the villagers. A US soldier, speaking through a translator, told the Afghans: "I know you are all involved and you support the insurgents. So now you will pay for it – you and your children will pay for this," Mohammad told journalists.
A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Capt. John Kirby, said US officials have found no record of a roadside bomb attack against any army vehicles the Afghans were talking about.
It is presently impossible to confirm these accounts as the US military does not release information on such incidents if no coalition troops are killed.
More hard-hitting facts about the accused soldier continue to appear in the media as investigation is underway.
A woman named Myra Jo Irish claims that an “extremely intoxicated” Bales forced her to grab his crotch outside a Tacoma, Washington, bowling alley in 2008. This led to a brawl with her boyfriend, whom Bales beat up in a second drunken assault in 2008.
Irish said she was asked by Bales’ friends not to file charges against him as "he was married and in the service, and it would destroy him," the Daily Mail quotes her as saying.
The news of the brawl follows an earlier report that Bales was arrested in 2002 for the drunken assault of a security guard at a Tacoma casino.
Allegations by some US military officials have also appeared in the media that the suspected shooter was drinking on a southern Afghanistan base before he allegedly left it to shoot his 17 victims.