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Afghan Massacre Survivors Disappointed In Bales Sentence


Staff Sergeant Robert Bales was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole yesterday in an Army courtroom in Washington state. Sergeant Bales confessed to sneaking off his base in Afghanistan last year and committing a massacre, killing 16 civilians - men, women and children. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, the end of the case offered little comfort to survivors of the massacre, some of whom were in the courtroom to hear the sentence.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Bales' lawyers tried to get him a life sentence with parole - just the chance of parole, no guarantees - years from now. They based their argument for leniency on the bloody horrors that Bales had witnesses in Iraq. They cited a letter written by a soldier who'd served with him, which said, quote, "The darkness that had been tugging at him for the last 10 years swallowed him whole." But it wasn't enough to convince the jury. In less than two hours, the six soldiers handed up their decision - life, no parole. Bales was ushered out by military police; his elderly mother sat head down, rocking and weeping. Soon after, on the lawn outside the court, an unusual scene - an Army public affairs officer, lining up Afghan villagers for the media.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hold on a second. He's going to make a statement. And once he's done with his statement, I will call you by organization. All right? Be respectful. Go ahead, sir.

KASTE: The nine Afghans - six men and three boys - had been flown in to testify. Now, Hajji Muhammad Wazir, who lost six children in the massacre, gave his opinion of the defense.

HAJJI MUHAMMED WAZIR: (Through Translator) They claim he was crazy. He had mental issues. And if he had mental issues, how could it be he didn't do the same thing to his family or to his team members in his own base? He goes, shoots in one village, murders some people, goes back to his base and gets more ammo and he goes to the next village and kills more people. He's not crazy, he's a murderer.

KASTE: Wazir and the others expressed their disgust over the fact that Bales had avoided the death penalty.

WAZIR: (Through Translator) I'm asking the average Americans right here if somebody jumps in your house in the middle of the night, kills 11 members of your family then tried to burn them, what sort of punishment would you be passing on on that person?

KASTE: Other Afghans took their turn at the mic. A boy showed the long scars on his leg where he'd been shot by Bales; an older man complained of other abuses by American soldiers, and he demanded that the U.S. stop sending, quote, "maniacs" to their country. But two hours later, away from the cameras, some of that anger had cooled. Escorted by plainclothes security men, the group attended Friday prayers in a tiny mosque with a view of the Olympic Mountains. Sami Ullah is the father of a girl who was shot in the head by Bales.

SAMI ULLAH: (Through Translator) We came here for two reasons. One, is today is Friday but also to do extra prayers, just to be thankful for the fact that this guy was sentenced to life imprisonment and that means he will be spending his life, for the rest of his life, in jail.

KASTE: Ullah spent some months in the U.S. last year when his daughter received intensive rehab at a Navy hospital in San Diego. Asked if ever wonders what kind of country would produce a man like Bales, he's philosophical.

ULLAH: (Through Translator) In a thousand, you know, one could be bad. And this guy was a bad apple. In a thousand apples, there's one bad apple. And he was the bad apple from here.

KASTE: Was Bales evil or disturbed or both? It's not a question Ullah feels much need to dwell on. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.