No Parole For Afghan Rampage — But Was It Justice?
On Friday, a military jury decided U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales will get life in prison without parole for killing 16 Afghan villagers.
Yet victims left behind — some bearing physical scars, others with emotional ones from seeing their kin indiscriminately, brutally gunned down — say that, with that sentence, they don’t feel they got justice.
Friday’s decision was not entirely unexpected. In June Bales’ pleaded guilty to more than 30 criminal charges, including 16 premeditated murder counts, spared himself from the prospect of a death sentence. He also pleaded guilty to charges related to illicit steroid and alcohol use.
But it still remained up to a jury of four officers and two enlisted personnel to decide whether Bales should be eligible for parole.
They decided Friday he is not, according to Lt. Col. Gary Dangerfield with Joint Base Lewis-McChord. That means the 39-year-old will spend the rest of his life in a military prison.
That’s not punishment enough for Haji Wazir. Now 40, Wazir was inside his home in the Panjwai district of Afghanistan’s southern Kandahar province in the pre-dawn hours of March 11, 2012, when Bales barged in.
What followed was a nightmare, ending with bloodied, limp and in some instances scorched bodies.
“We wanted this murderer to be executed, but we didn’t get our wish,” Wazir said through an interpreter Friday from the Washington state U.S. Army base where the sentence was handed down.
The sentence was not just, he added, before appealing to the U.S public to put themselves in his shoes.
“I’m asking the average American right here: If somebody jumps into your house in the middle of the night and kills 11 members of your family and tries to burn them, what punishment would you be passing on that person?”
Wazir and his family weren’t the only ones torn on that horrific morning some 18 months ago.
Bales slipped away from Camp Belambay, the remote outpost where he was stationed, and into one village, where he began shooting at civilians. After that, he returned to the base, reloaded and went out again to target another village.
He left a trail of blood and gore in both villages, with nine children among the dead. Witnesses claimed that the U.S. soldier dragged some bodies of his victims’ outside and set them ablaze.
The horror ended when Bales returned, once again, to Camp Belambay and turned himself in.
In the subsequent hours and days, some spoke highly about Bales, such as attorney Emma Scanlan who described him as a “devoted husband, father and dedicated member of the armed service.”
Yet in Afghanistan and around the world, the massacre quickly spurred outrage.
The Taliban vowed to retaliate “by killing and beheading Americans anywhere in the country.” Afghan President Hamid Karzai suggested, after meeting with villagers who’d seen the carnage and wanted Bales to be tried there to “heal our broken hearts,” that the incident had put U.S.-Afghan relations at a breaking point.
“It is by all means the end of the rope here,” Karzai said then. “The end of the rope that nobody can afford such luxuries anymore.”
Bales was identified as the culprit days later and eventually put in solitary confinement at the U.S. military prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
The military announced last December that Bales faced a court-martial.
The Army soldier spoke at this week’s sentencing, calling what he’d done “an act of cowardice.”
“I hid behind a mask of Bravado,” Bales said, according to a tweet from court from Drew Mikkelsen of CNN Seattle affiliate KING. Also admitting he’d taken steroids and drank sporadically, the soldier apologized to his victims.
“I am responsible,” he said.
Because of him, some in Afghanistan are still suffering the consequences.
Haji Mohammad Naim saw Bales come into his southwest Afghanistan home around 2 a.m. and kill women there, as well as some of his children. Bullets struck him in the neck and the face.
That incident and others in which U.S. soldiers have killed civilians — including another of Naim’s sons, in a separate incident, he says — have disgraced American forces in the eyes of many Afghans. Children in his village used to run toward U.S. troops, Naim said; now, they “run away and try to hide.”
If America is to improve its image, there must be accountability, he said. And if Washington wants to help rebuild Afghanistan, “try to send the right people, not maniacs and psychos like (Bales).”
Still, even if the U.S. governments acts differently, some pain and suffering can’t be undone.
Recalling tears shed by Bales’ mother during the legal proceedings, Naim said, “But at least she can go and visit him.
“What about us?” he asked rhetorically. “Our family members are actually 6 feet under, and there’s no way that we can visit them at all.