Murder in Afghanistan: Court Sentences 'Kill Team' Soldier to 24 Years in Prison

An American soldier has been sentenced to 24 years in prison by a military tribunal after pleading guilty to murdering innocent civilians in Afghanistan. Jeremy Morlock admitted to being part of a gruesome "kill team," and is testifying against his fellow soldiers as part of a plea bargain.

Photo Gallery: The 'Kill Team' in Afghanistan Photos

The first soldier from the so-called "kill team" in Afghanistan has been punished for his horrific crimes -- and he will now testify against his former comrades in court.

Jeremy Morlock, a 22-year-old army specialist, is part of a group of five soldiers accused of killing innocent civilians out of pure bloodlust. The unit was part of the 5th Stryker Brigade, which saw heavy fighting around Kandahar, including at the Forward Operating Base Ramrod. The soldiers carried out the crimes between January and May 2010 by using guns and grenades to make it appear they were under attack in order to justify killing civilians.

The soldiers then took photos of themselves grinning while standing over their victims as if posing with hunting trophies, as well as taking gruesome mementos including bones and severed fingers. SPIEGEL has obtained a significant number of photos and videos taken by the troops.

The men are also accused of taking drugs while on duty and beating up a fellow soldier who complained to superior officers.

Killing out of Pure Bloodlust

Morlock, described as the right hand man of Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, 25, an overbearing personality who has been accused of being the driving force behind the murders, testified before the court that he and his comrades had been planning the first of the murders for weeks before it actually took place. "The plan was to kill people," he told the hearing. Military prosecutor Andre Leblanc described the crimes as being of "unspeakable cruelty." The indictment accused the soldiers of killing out of pure bloodlust.

During the hearing, Morlock described some of the details of the murders. The unit would go out on patrol in a Stryker vehicle, nicknamed the "Kevlar coffin" because of how unsuitable the slow, noisy armoured vehicle is for use in Afghanistan. Once in a village, Morlock revealed how he hid behind a wall with one of his co-defendants as an Afghan approached them. Morlock then allegedly armed a grenade and threw it towards the victim in such a way as to suggest it was the Afghan who was attacking them. The victim was then shot, supposedly in self-defense, by another soldier.

Reports have claimed the atmosphere after a killing was jubilant, with the soldiers in high spirits and excitedly regaling each other with their own versions of what had happened. In a sad irony, the soldiers were supposed to be carrying out the American strategy of counterinsurgency, or COIN, by protecting and befriending the Afghan population in the dangerous region around Kandahar.

Morlock is the first soldier held responsible for the crimes. In addition to the five soldiers accused of murder, seven others have been accused of lesser crimes including desecrating dead bodies and obstructing the investigation.

Plea Bargain for a Reduced Sentence

Morlock agreed to testify against his four comrades to obtain a more lenient sentence -- despite being given 24 years, he will be eligible for parole in just seven. The military judge, Lt. Col. Kwasi Hawks, said he had intended to sentence Morlock to life in prison but had been bound by the plea bargain. Morlock's lawyer said that the year or so he spent on remand would be factored into the sentence. As well as three counts of murder, Morlock also admitted charges of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and illegal drug use. He will be dishonorably discharged from the military.

The US Army issued a statement on Monday apologizing for the crimes depicted in the images, describing them as "repugnant to us as human beings and contrary to the standards and values of the United States Army." They will be hoping the murders will not attract the sort of global condemnation that flooded in after the Abu Ghraib torture scandal broke six years ago.

dsk -- with wires

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