Cruelty and War in Afghanistan: US Soldier Goes on Trial for 'Kandahar Massacre'

By Guido Mingels

Robert Bales stands accused of having murdered 16 people in cold blood last spring in Afghanistan. But his defense attorney plans to put the entire war in the dock with him. Mohammed Wazir, who lost six children in the massacre, wants to see Bales hang.

Photo Gallery: The Killings of Kandahar Photos
AFP

The 33 prayer beads slide through the man's hand; 33 repetitions of "Allahu akbar," "God is great."

"My name is Mohammed Wazir," he says. "I do not cry. I have 10 fingers on my hands. Such was my pain that day, as if someone had cut off all 10 of my fingers. I had seven children. Now I am left with one son. It doesn't bring the dead to life if I cry."

Then he smiles for no apparent reason. One of his hands bears a tattoo of two crossed swords. "You don't ask Allah, 'Why have you done this?'," he says. "I must be patient. The Prophet will reward me in paradise."

Wazir, 35, with his turban wrapped in the Pashtun manner, is answering questions in the garden of a hotel in Kabul. Searching for traces of desperation in his face, or sadness in his clear, dark eyes, yields nothing. Three other men are here with him and they nod in response to his slow-paced sentences. All of these men will be flying to Mecca tomorrow for the Hajj, the great pilgrimage that is a religious obligation for all Muslims.

Under the cover of darkness in the early hours of Sunday, March 11, 2012, around 2:30 a.m., a man approached the house where Wazir lived with his family, in the village of Najiban in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, a place of endless war. The man, according to prosecutors, is Robert Bales, 39, US Army staff sergeant with the 3rd Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division.

In the house were six of Wazir's children, as well as his wife, mother, brother, sister-in-law and nephew. Wazir wasn't home, having taken his youngest son to visit relatives.

"Why didn't the murderer wait for me?" he asks. "Why did he kill my children but not wait for me?"

'Drawn to the Impossible'

The world soon learned what happened that night at Wazir's home and in two other houses in the villages of Najiban and Alkozai. The crime, now known as the "Kandahar Massacre," is already considered to be perhaps the gravest war crime of this most recent conflict in Afghanistan. There was Haditha in Iraq, My Lai in Vietnam. And now the 16 dead in these villages near Camp Belambay, an American military base in the district of Panjwai in Kandahar Province. The victims' family members use the term "Ghamgina Wraz," or "sad day" to refer to March 11, 2012 -- or in the Afghan calendar, the 21st day of the 12th month of the year 1390 as calculated from the date of the Prophet Muhammad's migration to Medina.

"First let's see how much they can prove," says lawyer John Henry Browne. Browne too has a tattoo -- a ring of stylized barbed wire circling his arm.

Browne, 66, with his mane of hair and his hippie past, has been divorced six times -- and seen as something of a rock star among American attorneys. He has spent his life representing rapists and murderers, the types of cases that tend to attract cameras and microphones. He also likes motorcycles and once played in a band that opened for The Doors. He made a name for himself in the 1970s as one of the lawyers for serial killer Ted Bundy. In describing his motivation, Browne says: "Legally speaking, I'm drawn to the impossible."

He folds his two-meter (six-and-a-half-foot) frame into his rental car, a white SUV, and is driven to the prison at Fort Leavenworth for an appointment with his client. Balancing a laptop on his legs, he scrolls through a 5,000-page document, the conclusions of a military investigation concerning the case of Robert Bales. The document lists 34 violations of American military criminal law, including 16 cases of murder, six attempted murders, several cases of cremating bodies and the abuse of both alcohol and an anabolic steroid called Stanozolol.

Browne's strategy in court has remained unchanged for decades. He used it again just last year to obtain a light sentence for airplane thief Colton Harris-Moore, notorious as the "Barefoot Bandit." In court, Browne drew attention away from the crime itself, putting the focus instead on the accused's difficult living circumstances. As soon as Browne took on Bales' case, he started telling reporters about the staff sergeant's devastating war experiences, his three tours of Iraq, a concussion he suffered in the line of duty and his symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

'Frankenstein Was Not the Monster'

Referring to soldiers such as Bales, Browne told the Seattle Times: "These people are broken, and we've broken them." He told the New York Times: "Frankenstein was not the monster. The monster was Dr. Frankenstein, who created Frankenstein." He told NBC: "I think the war is on trial." The public will soon be hearing more such statements from the attorney, when the initial hearings begin on Monday in Seattle and Kandahar for a case Browne considers the most important of his career.

The Fort Leavenworth garrison was once a symbol of the United States' military might. Now, though, it comes up more often in connection with certain names that have brought disgrace to the US Army and to the country as a whole. Charles Graner, one of the torturers at Abu Ghraib, served his sentence here. Bradley Manning, alleged traitor and source of documents leaked to WikiLeaks, was long kept here as well.

The facility is located behind a hill, squatting low against the flat landscape. From atop the concrete walls, razor wire glints in the hot Kansas sun. And somewhere inside is Robert Bales, the man the Internet has dubbed the "Kandahar Killer" and who his wife Kari calls "the best husband ever." On one visit to Fort Leavenworth with the couple's two children, Quincy, 5, and Bobby, 2, Kari celebrated with her husband a small family milestone: that little Bobby had used the potty for the first time.

Witnesses found no gunshot wounds on the corpses of the two youngest victims in Najiban: Nabia, 4, and Palwasha, 1. The murderer presumably either burned them alive or allowed them to suffocate: He piled his victims up together, covered them in blankets and set everything on fire.

As Wazir describes his murdered children, he counts them off on his fingers. "Esmatullah was my oldest son. He was about 15. He went to the Koran school at the mosque. He could read and write. We were planning a wedding for him. Faizullah was about 11. He liked to ride his bicycle. He brought us tea when we worked in the fields. Masooma was nine. Her name means 'innocence.' She made little dolls and sewed faces for them. Farida was seven. She helped her mother. Nabia was perhaps four. Palwasha was still very little."

Searching for a Calm Heart

For attorney Browne, a fair trial is vital. He defines justice as: "Equality in the eyes of the law. That's why I defend those who are at the fringes, the indefensible, like Bales," he says. "If the government abandons them and sentences them to death arbitrarily, then our entire Constitution is worth nothing."

Mohammed Wazir, not surprisingly, sees things differently. "We want to see this man hang," he says. "I won't speak his name, I don't want to dirty my mouth. I would like to hang him myself. I'll go to America to the Mahkama, to the great court, to see him hang. Then my heart will be calm." The men accompanying him nod in agreement.

"Mahkama" is the Pashto word for a court. It's how Mohammed Wazir refers to the body before which he wishes to appear.

"Article 32 Hearing" is how John Henry Browne and the American military justice system refer to the hearing that will begin on November 5. The purpose of this hearing is to determine whether the case should proceed to a criminal trial, and if so, what kind. The hearing will take place simultaneously in Tacoma, near Seattle, and in Kandahar. The prosecution will present its findings and the survivors' testimony will be transmitted live to the courtroom on the west coast of the United States. Staff Sergeant Robert Bales will be present.

At the conclusion of the hearing, the hearing officer will decide whether investigators have assembled enough incriminating evidence for a general court martial -- the military equivalent of a felony trial. The officer will also determine whether the trial will carry a possible sentence of the death penalty, which the prosecution will doubtlessly petition for. It may be years before a verdict is reached.

Wazir clears his throat and spits chewing tobacco on the ground. "The court in America will find the murderer guilty," he says. And then, he believes, they will ask him and the other family members of the victims how the perpetrator should be penalized. Shooting, Wazir says, is not excruciating enough. As if his wish were not yet clear, Mohammed Wazir mimes his preferred punishment, settling an invisible noose around his neck and pulling it tight.

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