JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, WASH. — An Afghan farmer shot during a massacre in Kandahar Province last year took the witness stand Tuesday against the U.S. soldier who attacked his village, cursing him before breaking down and pleading with the prosecutor not to ask him any more questions.
Haji Mohammad Naim appeared Tuesday in the courtroom at Joint Base Lewis-McChord south of Seattle, where a sentencing hearing began for Staff Sgt. Robert Bales in the slayings of 16 civilians killed during pre-dawn raids on two villages on March 11, 2012.
The hearing afforded some victims and relatives their first chance to confront Bales face-to-face.
With a thick gray beard, a turban and traditional Afghan dress, Haji Mohammad Naim testified in his native Pashto through an interpreter, speaking loudly and quickly and frequently waving a finger in the air. He pointed to where he was shot in the cheek and neck.
“This bastard stood right in front of me!” he said. “I wanted to ask him, ‘What did I do? What have I done to you?’... And he shot me!”
Bales pleaded guilty in June to avoid the death penalty. Now the six jurors must decide whether he is sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole or without it.
Naim, who is about 60 years old, said he has suffered from numbness in his hand and a stutter since the shooting. He became emotional, often speaking over the interpreter, as prosecutor Lt. Col. Jay Morse asked what it was like to have someone come into his home uninvited. He eventually stood up and said he’d had enough: “Don’t ask me any more questions!”
The prosecutor asked him for one more favor: to sit down and see whether the defense attorneys had any questions for him. He complied, but Bales’ lawyers said they didn’t need to ask him anything.
Naim’s two sons, Sadiquallah, who is about 13, and the older Faizullah, also testified.
Sadiquallah spoke quietly, responding with a simple “yes” when asked if he cried about being shot. Faizullah, who was not at home during the attack, said his father has trouble picking up even simple objects because his hand is so weak.
Seven Afghans testified. Four were hurt in the attacks. Three others were relatives of the dead or wounded.
Among the other victims who testified was a man who goes by the name Samiullah. His teenage son, Rafiullah, was shot in both legs. His daughter, Zardana, survived after being shot in the head.
“He wakes up with nightmares. He thinks the Americans are coming after him,” Samiullah said. “Zardana was a bright girl. She was shot in the head. Half her brain is missing. She is no longer the same person.”
Earlier, Morse told the jury that Bales felt “inadequate as a soldier and as a man” when he left his remote post in Afghanistan in the middle of the night and attacked two mud-walled villages, gunning down men, screaming children and elderly women.
He opened the government’s case by reading a 32-page “stipulation of facts” — an unbearably gruesome recitation of Bales’ actions that night, describing how he executed a young girl who was screaming for him to stop beating her father, how he fired indiscriminately into rooms full of children and how he slaughtered 11 members of a single family, many of them still asleep on their blankets.
“The accused placed his weapon on ‘burst’ and murdered everyone in the room,” Morse said.
Offering the most detailed single account yet of the attack, Morse recounted the killings compound-by-compound and room-by-room, describing at one point how a widow was left clutching bits of her husband’s skull when the killer finally left. Bales looked away as prosecutors displayed pictures of some of his bloodied victims.
Bales, a 39-year-old Ohio native and father of two from Lake Tapps, Wash., was serving his fourth combat deployment when he left the outpost at Camp Belambay in the pre-dawn darkness. He first attacked one village, returning to Belambay only when he realized he was low on ammunition, Morse said.
He then woke a fellow soldier, described his actions and said he was headed out to kill more. The other soldier didn’t believe him and went back to sleep. Bales left again.
The massacre prompted such angry protests that the U.S. temporarily halted combat operations in Afghanistan, and it was three weeks before Army investigators could reach the crime scene.
At the time, Bales had been under heavy personal, professional and financial stress, Morse said. He had complained to other soldiers that his wife was fat and unattractive and said he’d divorce her except that her father had money. He had stopped paying the mortgage on one of his houses because it was assessed at $60,000 less than he paid for it, and he was upset that he had not been promoted.
“The accused felt inadequate as a soldier and as a man because of his personal, financial and professional problems,” Morse said.
Furthermore, Bales had expressed a desire for revenge when a fellow soldier had stepped on a roadside bomb and lost his leg below the knee a week earlier — though Bales did not personally witness the event or see the soldier afterward, Morse said.
During his plea hearing in June, Bales couldn’t explain to a judge why he committed the killings. “There’s not a good reason in this world for why I did the horrible things I did,” he said.
He did not say he was sorry, but his lawyers hinted an apology might come at sentencing.
Prosecutors questioned how much remorse Bales truly feels. They played for the jury a recording of a phone conversation with his wife in which Bales briefly laughs as recalls that the Army revised the number of murders he was charged with, from 17 to 16.
“At least they dropped one count of murder,” he said.
Bales’ attorneys have said they plan to present evidence that could warrant leniency, including his previous deployments and what they describe as his history of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
“Our general theme is that Sgt. Bales snapped,” one of his civilian attorneys, John Henry Browne, said earlier.
If he is sentenced to life with the possibility of parole, Bales would be eligible in 20 years, but there’s no guarantee he would receive it.