A US soldier has avoided the death penalty for murdering 16 Afghan civilians last year, after a military judge accepted his guilty plea.
Sergeant Robert Bales, 39, pleaded guilty over the massacre in southern Afghanistan in March last year.
After making the plea on Wednesday, he read from a statement in a clear and steady voice, describing his actions for each killing in the same terms.
Bales said he left the remote base where he was posted in southern Afghanistan and went to the nearby villages of mud walled compounds.
Once inside, he says he “formed the intent” of killing the victims, then shot each one. Bales told the judge: “This act was without legal justification, sir.”
His lawyer said last week he would admit guilt in exchange for prosecutors not seeking his execution. The judge was required to approve any plea deal.
Bales was joined by his lawyers John Browne and Emma Scanlan in a packed courtroom at Joint Base Lewis-McChord south of Seattle in Washington state, where he has been held pending court martial proceedings.
Scanlan entered guilty pleas for all charges against him including six of attempted murder and seven of assault.
Seventeen of the 22 victims were women or children and almost all were shot in the head.
Bales pleaded not guilty to one count of wrongful endeavor to impede an investigation by damaging a laptop.
|Al Jazeera’s Jennifer Glasse speaks to some of the victims’ relatives in the Afghan capital, Kabul.|
When asked by military judge Colonel Jeffery Nance if he understood that a guilty plea was final, Bales said, “Yes, sir.”
A date of August 19 was set for a sentencing trial. Bales requested trial by a 12-member jury including one-third enlisted officers.
Judge Nance asked Bales why he committed the March 2012 killings. Bales responded that he has asked himself that a million times.
He said: “There’s not a good reason in this world for why I did the horrible things I did.”
Prosecutors did not confirm that they were no longer seeking the death sentence. In death penalty cases, a unanimous verdict is required.
Bales’ lawyer John Browne announced last week that he had reached “an agreement with the military to take the death penalty off the table” if Bales would plead guilty.
Asked if Bales was sorry, Browne said: “Absolutely. And I think that will become clear as the process goes forward. He’s very relieved that the death penalty is not on the table.”
Bales allegedly left his base in the Panjwayi district of southern Kandahar province on the night of March 11, 2012, to commit the killings.
Nine of those killed were children. Bales allegedly set several of the bodies on fire.
At a pre-trial hearing in November, Bales’s family insisted he was innocent until proven guilty, calling him “courageous and honorable,” while his lawyer raised questions about the role of alcohol, drugs and stress in the tragedy.
But prosecutors lashed the “heinous and despicable” alleged massacre during an eight-day hearing.
|Afghans sceptical of Kandahar massacre trial|
Prosecutors at the so-called Article 32 pre-trial hearing alleged that Bales left the base twice to carry out the killings, returning in between and even telling a colleague what he had done.
The hearing included three evening sessions – daytime in Afghanistan – to hear testimony by video conference from Afghan victims and relatives of those who died.
Earlier, Al Jazeera interviewed Afghans who claimed to be victims of Bales’ killing spree, which is known as the ‘Kandahar massacre’ in Afghanistan.
Samiullah, a relative of the victims, said Bales, a “ruthless man”, killed women and children with “incredible brutality.”