Reuters reports that U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, who is accused of murdering 16 Afghan civilians in cold blood in 2012, plead guilty on Wednesday to "premeditated murder and other charges under a deal with military prosecutors to avoid the death penalty." The attacks, carried out in the Afghan province of Khandar in March last year, left 16 unarmed Afghanis, mostly women and children, dead after Bales left his Army post and entered two villages. Although the issue of Bales' mental health and whether he was mentally unstable at the time of the shooting had come up during the trial, Bales' attorney John Henry Browne said that he was not legally insane at the time.
The military court has still yet to decide whether to accept the guilty plea, but relatives of the victims have reportedly told the Associated Press that they are furious at the thought that Bales will not face execution. Although I disagree with the idea of the death penalty, their reaction is understandable coming from people who have lived under the U.S.-led occupation for so long and given the brutal massacre carried out by Bales.
The shocking massacre was the worst atrocity committed by U.S. forces in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led invasion, and led to such strong protests against the U.S. that combat operations in Afghanistan were temporarily halted and it was weeks before investigators could reach the crime scene. When asked by the military judge, Colonel Jeffery Nance, on Wednesday why he murdered the victims, Bales' responded that he had asked himself that same question "a million times" but that there was "not a good reason in this world for why I did the horrible things I did."
Bales, who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a traumatic brain injury according to his lawyers, had been drinking and snorting valium on the night of the massacre. He first attacked occupants of the village of Alkozai, returning to his base before then leaving again and attacking the village of Najiban. Bales described the massacre to Nance, saying how he shot each victim. While his lawyer said that he was "crazed" and "broken" at the time, he argued that Bales was not legally insane. Relatives of the victims gave harrowing descriptions of the attacks during a hearing last year, with one, Khamal Adin, testifying how he saw the body of his cousin’s mother, "She was shot on her head, and the brain was outside. I had not seen her other injuries. When I grabbed her, half of her head fell down, with her eyes on the ground."
While the relatives of victims may have wanted harsher punishment, Bales' admission of guilt does go some way to providing a sense of justice. In addition to Bales' individual responsibility, however, some have argued that the U.S government and military also bears some responsibility for failing to pick up warning signs regarding Bales' mental state and redeploying him. Furthermore, the case also highlights the fact that there are still people in the military and government, such as those responsible for the murder seen in the Collateral Murder video released by WikiLeaks, who have not been prosecuted for their actions in the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bales' case should not be the end of seeking to bring those who have committed crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan to justice.