By Bill Rigby
SEATTLE (Reuters) - A U.S. Army soldier accused of gunning down 16 Afghan villagers in a drunken rampage will face the military version of a preliminary hearing on Monday to determine if there is sufficient evidence to send him to a court martial.
U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, a decorated veteran of four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan who could face the death penalty if convicted, is accused of walking off his base under cover of darkness and opening fire on civilians in their homes in at least two villages in March.
The shooting of mostly women and children in Afghanistan's Kandahar province marked the worst civilian slaughter by U.S. forces since the Vietnam War and eroded already strained U.S.-Afghan ties after over a decade of conflict in the country.
Bales, 38, faces 16 counts of premeditated murder and six counts of attempted murder, as well as charges of assault and wrongfully possessing and using steroids and alcohol while deployed.
Premeditated murder is a capital offense under the U.S. military justice code, so Bales could face the death penalty if convicted or a mandatory minimum sentence of life imprisonment with eligibility for parole.
The two-week hearing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, where Bales' infantry regiment was based, is designed to be a "thorough and impartial investigation" of the facts, said Alain Polynice, an Army spokesman.
Proceedings will feature live video testimony from witnesses in Afghanistan, including villagers and Afghan soldiers.
Bales, who was moved to the confinement center at Lewis-McChord last month after being held at a military prison in Kansas since March, will be present at the hearing but was not expected to answer questions.
Bales' civilian lawyer, John Henry Browne, has cast doubt on the Army's version of events, suggesting that Bales may not have acted alone, and may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Browne told Reuters last month that he and an Army prosecutor planned to question five to 15 Afghan villagers and military personnel as key witnesses from Kandahar Air Field. He did not respond to requests for comments immediately preceding the hearing. Continued...