Nighttime testimony from Afghanistan began in the pretrial hearing of Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who stands accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians last March.
JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD — Early on the morning of March 11, just after his morning prayers, Khamal, a 39-year-old Afghan got a phone call that something terrible had happened at the mud-walled compound of his cousin — Haji Wazir Mohammed — in the village of Najibun.
Khamal rushed from his home in Kandahar City to Najibun, and at about 7 a.m. entered the compound to discover a massacre had claimed the lives of 11 people, according to his testimony relayed via video stream to a Friday-evening court session at this Western Washington base.
The hearing is laying out evidence against Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, a Lewis-McChord soldier who is charged with killing those 11 villagers and five others while serving in Afghanistan.
Bales, a 39-year-old Ohio native and father of two from Lake Tapps, Pierce County, faces 16 counts of premeditated murder and six counts of attempted murder in the attack in southern Afghanistan.
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Khamal, who did not provide a last name, testified at an overnight session of a hearing that will help determine whether Bales faces a court-martial. Bales could face the death penalty if he is convicted.
Though Khamal’s cousin Hajii Wazir Mohammed was away at the time, he lost most of his family.
Khamal testified that the dead included seven children under the age of 16, including four who were under the age of 6. Their bodies were found in a pile and burned, according to his testimony. The youngest child, whose age he estimated at younger than 2 years old, was the only one who did not appear to have gun shot wounds to the head.
Bales watched the proceedings from Lewis-McChord along with defense attorneys and prosecutors in the Army courtroom as in Afghanistan, the bearded Khamal offered more than an hour of grim testimony at a military base there.
“My request is to get justice,” Khamal said.
Khamal said he joined that day with other villagers to separate the female bodies from the males, wrap them, and take them out of the compound.
Before the bodies were buried, he said, in protest of what had taken place, the villagers took them in vehicles to the area outside the small base where Bales had been stationed.
Two Afghan National Army guards also testified from Afghanistan on Friday, recounting what they had seen in the predawn darkness outside the base the night 16 Afghan civilians were killed.
One guard recounted that a man arrived at the base and did not stop even after he asked him three times to do so. Later in the night, the second guard said, he saw a soldier leave the base — laughing as he went.
The guards did not say the soldier was the same person nor did they identify the man as Staff Sgt. Robert Bales.
Prosecutors say Bales broke his shooting rampage into two episodes, attacking one village, returning to the base and then departing again to raid another.
The hearing was also expected to feature testimony from two victims and other relatives of victims. Like the guards, they were scheduled to speak by live video to the military courtroom at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Dressed in green fatigues, the first guard, named Nematullah, testified that when he had told the man he saw to stop, the man came toward him, said “how are you” in an Afghan language, then went inside the base.
Under cross-examination from Bales’ attorney, John Henry Browne, who traveled 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 the village prosecutors say Bales first attacked that March night.
A second guard, Tosh Ali, testified that later that night he replaced Nematullah and saw an American leaving the base around 2:30 a.m. The man greeted Ali as well with “how are you” in an Afghan language, and was laughing as he walked away.
Prosecutors say Bales wore a T-shirt, cape and night-vision goggles — no body armor — when he slipped away from his remote post, Camp Belambay.
Between his attacks, he woke a fellow soldier, reported what he’d done and said he was headed out to kill more, the soldier testified earlier. But the soldier didn’t believe what Bales said, and went back to sleep.
On Thursday, a U.S. 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 found 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’s 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.
Material from Times staff reporter Hal Bernton and The Associated Press reporter Gene Johnson was used in this report.