A US army medic was sentenced to nine months in prison on Wednesday after pleading guilty to shooting at unarmed Afghan farmers and agreeing to testify against other soldiers accused of terrorizing civilians.
Five of the 12 soldiers are accused of premeditated murder in the most serious prosecution of alleged atrocities by US military personnel since the war began in late 2001.
Several are alleged to have collected severed fingers and other human remains as war trophies in Afghanistan.
In the first court-martial in the case, Staff Sergeant Robert Stevens (25) admitted opening fire on two Afghan men for no apparent reason, saying he and other soldiers were acting on orders from a squad leader during a patrol in March.
“I performed those actions and I did it,” he said when asked by the presiding officer why he pleaded guilty to charges that carried a maximum penalty of nearly 20 years in prison.
The charge of aggravated assault with a dangerous weapon was the most serious of four offenses to which Stevens, an army veteran of seven and a half years, pleaded guilty at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington.
The case began as an investigation into hashish use by members of what was then known as the 5th Stryker Brigade but grew into a probe of what prosecutors have described as an infantry unit run amok.
A potentially explosive aspect is the existence of dozens of grisly photos that four of the defendants are accused of having taken of war dead, some of them showing US soldiers posing with the corpses.
The images, so far sealed from public view, have drawn comparisons with pictures of Iraqi prisoners taken by U.S. military personnel at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2004.
‘Right thing to do’
Stevens, though not regarded as one of the leading figures in the case, was court-martialled first because he waived his rights to a preliminary proceeding.
As part of the deal, military prosecutors said they would grant Stevens immunity from further charges in exchange for his testimony against the 11 other soldiers.
“It’s the right thing to do and I’m going to do it,” he said at the hearing.
The three other charges against Stevens were wrongfully tossing a grenade out of his vehicle during a convoy last spring, making false statements to military investigators and dereliction of duty.
He pleaded not guilty to a fifth charge, conspiracy to commit assault, stemming from the shooting incident involving the two Afghan farmers.
Prosecutors sought a prison term of at least 18 months.
Stevens will serve his nine months at a military brig on his home base. He will be demoted to E-1 private, the lowest rank in the army, and forfeit his pay while in prison but will be allowed to stay in the military.