A US military hearing has begun to hear testimonies of two wounded survivors of a shooting rampage in the Afghan province of Kandahar by a US soldier that killed 16 villagers in March.
The hearing, which continued on Saturday, will eventually decide if Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, accused of murder in the case, will face a court martial.
Military prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Bales, accusing him of killing the villagers when he ventured out of his remote camp on two revenge-fuelled forays over a five-hour period.
The victims were mostly women and children.
The survivors, along with four relatives of those killed in the rampage, appeared via video-link from Kandahar Air Field to a hearing at a US Army base in Washington state.
A boy who was awoken by a neighbour during the massacre testified at the hearing, saying he hid in a storage room and was struck by a bullet.
The son of a man wounded during the massacre also testified at the hearing, saying he loaded five of the injured into a car to bring them to a base for treatment.
The witness, Faizullah, testified on Friday through an interpreter.
It is the first time Afghan witnesses have testified under oath about what transpired that night.
The testimony could provide important clues about the nature of the attack, including whether Bales acted alone.
Some villagers told reporters shortly after the attacks that more than one US soldier was involved, but there have been no sworn statements to that effect made publicly.
Meanwhile, an Afghan National Army guard who reported seeing Bales outside his remote base on the night the civilians were massacred said the soldier did not stop even after being asked three times to do so.
The guard, named Nematullah, testified by live video from Kandahar on Friday night.
“I told him to stop,” the guard said, through an interpreter, though he did not say whether the man was Bales. He said the man came towards him, said “how are you” in Pashto and went inside the base.
Under cross-examination from Bales’ lawyer, John Henry Browne, who travelled to Afghanistan to question the witnesses, the guard said he saw the man but could not identify him.
Browne pressed further, asking if the guard could describe the soldier at all. The guard said he was white and well built, but those were the only details he could provide.
Nematullah also said the soldier was coming from the north, which is the direction of a village that prosecutors say Bales attacked first in the nighttime rampage on March 11.
The villagers will speak to a military courtroom at Joint Base Lewis-McChord during the overnight session to accommodate the time difference.
Bales, a 39-year-old Ohio native and father of two from Lake Tapps, Washington, faces 16 counts of premeditated murder and six counts of attempted murder in the attack in southern Afghanistan.
Prosecutors say that Bales wore a T-shirt, cape and night-vision goggles – no body armour – when he slipped away from his remote post, Camp Belambay. He first attacked one village, returned to the base, and headed out again to attack another village, they say.
In between, he woke a fellow soldier, reported what he had done, and said he was headed out to kill more, the soldier testified. But the soldier did not believe what Bales said, and went back to sleep.
Blood on clothes
On Thursday, a US army DNA expert testified that Bales had the blood of at least four people on his clothes and guns when he surrendered.
The blood of two males and two females was discovered on Bales’ pants, shirt, gloves, rifle and other items, said Christine Trapolsi, an examiner at the Army’s Criminal Investigation Laboratory.
To preserve the evidence, she said she only tested a portion of the bloodstains, and it is possible more DNA profiles could be discovered through additional testing.
Another forensic expert from the Criminal Investigation Lab, fiber specialist Larry Peterson, testified that a small piece of fabric that matched the cape Bales reportedly wore was discovered on a pillow in one of the attacked compounds.
Prosecutors referred to the cape as a blanket, but Peterson said it was more like a decorative covering for a window or doorway.
Bales has not entered a plea and was not expected to testify. His lawyers, who did not give an opening statement, have not discussed the evidence, but say Bales has post-traumatic stress disorder and suffered a concussive head injury during a prior deployment to Iraq.