Monday, April 2, 2012

Obstruction of justice in Afghanistan

by Gregory Patin

John Henry Browne, the defense attorney representing Staff Sergeant Robert Bales who is accused of killing 17 Afghan civilians in Kandahar earlier this month, says he cannot interview witnesses and prosecutors will not cooperate with his team’s investigation.

"We are facing an almost complete information blackout from the government, which is having a devastating effect on our ability to investigate the charges preferred against our client," Browne said in a statement released on Friday.

According to a Reuters report, Browne claims U.S. forces in Afghanistan obstructed him and his associates from reaching the injured civilians at a hospital in Kandahar province to interview them about the incident:
When we tried to interview the injured civilians being treated at Kandahar Hospital we were denied access and told to coordinate with the prosecution team. The next day the prosecution team interviewed the civilians injured. We found out shortly after the prosecution interviews of the injured civilians that the civilians were all released from the hospital and there was no contact information for them.
That means potential witnesses will scatter and could prove unreachable, making it virtually impossible to track them down. Thus far Bales’ defense has only managed to talk to U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, but not victims or actual witnesses of the attack.

Browne explains that the military prosecutors who filed the charges against Bales have possibly been unwilling to cooperate because “they are concerned about the strength of their case.”

Browne’s statements raise questions about whether the U.S. military really wants to punish the guilty party to the fullest extent of the law and raise suspicions that the U.S. government is concealing some ugly truth about the Kandahar massacre. In the days immediately following the incident, reports about the events in U.S. media sources widely varied from those in overseas sources.

US officials still insist that only one soldier was involved in the shootings. They showed their Afghan counterparts images captured by a surveillance camera on a blimp above the base, which allegedly shows Bales returning after the shooting. But the investigators, for some reason, withheld the surveillance video from Bales’ lawyer.

An independent Afghan investigation team sent by President Hamid Karzai to the villages in Kandahar analyzed reports from witnesses and survivors who claimed more than one U.S. soldier was involved and concluded that up to 20 troops were involved.

The Afghan report firmly stated that “one soldier cannot kill so many people in two villages within one hour at the same time.” President Hamid Karzai, who also said that the delegation “did not receive cooperation from the USA regarding the surrender of the US soldiers to the Afghan government,” seemed to share the same suspicions.

A journalist for SBS Dateline in AustraliaYalda Hakim, provides yet another account. Hakim was born in Afghanistan and as a child, immigrated to Australia. Hakim also said American investigators tried to prevent her from interviewing the children, saying her questions could traumatize them.

After appealing to village leaders, interviews were arranged. Hakim and cameraman Ryan Sheridan were granted rare access to President Hamid Karzai’s chief investigator, to survivors and their relatives, and to the area where the attacks took place. She is, perhaps, the first international journalist to interview the surviving witnesses.

In a video aired by SBS Dateline, children who witnessed the events told Hakim that other Americans were present during the massacre, holding flashlights in the yard. “One man entered the room and the others were standing in the yard, holding lights,” an eight year-old named Noorbinak told Hakim. (Note: Above link is to original video, embedded video to left was found on You Tube).

Noorbinak says in the video that the shooter first shot her father’s dog. Then she says he shot her father in the foot and dragged her mother by the hair. When her father started screaming, he shot her father again. Then he turned the gun on Noorbinak and shot her in the leg. 

A brother of one victim told Hakim that his brother’s children mentioned more than one soldier wearing a headlamp. They also had lights at the end of their guns, he said. “They don’t know whether there were 15 or 20, however many there were,” he said in the video.

Staff Sgt. Bales is currently being held in a military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He will have his psychological condition examined in a standard procedure in such cases known as “board 706” (a.k.a. the “sanity board”). After that has occurred, the military justice system requires a preliminary hearing, known as an "Article 32" hearing, to establish whether there is a strong enough case to proceed to a court martial. Bales is likely to remain in Leavenworth due to security concerns.

In all probability, the American people will never be informed of all of the details behind what really happened on March 11 in Afghanistan. It is also quite possible that Bales’ attorney will never get all of the facts. What few facts that are released will be released slowly, over time. That, unfortunately, is the norm with incidents that occur in war zones shrouded in secrecy.

Whether or not Staff Sergeant Bates acted alone, the blame will almost certainly fall on him and for that he may face the death penalty. Blaming one man, however, not only suppresses the horror of what routinely happens in all wars, but also mitigates the responsibility of those all the way up the chain of command to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Defense Secretary Panetta, and President Obama.

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