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Originally published August 20, 2013 at 9:43 PM | Page modified August 20, 2013 at 10:02 PM

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Bales faces survivors of his Afghan rampage

In dramatic testimony Tuesday, seven Afghan nationals told a military jury how Staff Sgt. Robert Bales slaughtered their family members during a predawn massacre at two Afghanistan villages last year.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD — Twelve-year-old Sadiqullah explained how he still has nightmares. Teenager Rafiulla described how he covered his grandmother’s body with a tarp after watching the American shoot her in the head.

And Samiullua testified to a panel of Army jurists — convened here Tuesday to decide the punishment of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales — that his 7-year-old daughter, Zardana, survived being shot during the bloody rampage.

But the girl’s life is forever changed, said the father, who is about 30.

“Half of her brain is missing,” he said through a translator. “She is no longer the same person.”

In all, seven Afghan nationals testified Tuesday, highlighting a day that provided the grimmest account to date of what happened during the predawn hours of March 11, 2012, after the Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier left a remote Army outpost in the Kandahar province, then methodically massacred 16 people in two villages.

The villagers’ testimony followed a cavalcade of horrors detailed by Army prosecutor Lt. Col. Joseph Morse, who read from a 32-page “stipulation of facts” that described how Bales slaughtered women, children and elderly men.

Room by room, step by step, Morse described in brutal detail how Bales encountered each of his victims throughout a chaotic night, rampaging into brick-and-mud family compounds and indiscriminately kicking, beating and shooting his victims, sometimes while they pleaded for their lives.

“By this time, the accused had formed the specific intent to murder any Afghan he saw regardless of their age or gender,” Morse said of Bales’ initial massacre at Alkozai.

Shooting most of his victims at close range, Bales then burned the bodies of most by dousing them with kerosene from a lamp and then setting them ablaze.

Bales halted the massacre “only when he was low on ammunition,” Morse added, returning to his outpost to reload and head to a second village to resume killing.

To avoid a possible death sentence, Bales pleaded guilty in June to all of the slayings — and to six counts of attempted murder and other charges. The panel of six Army jurists seated Tuesday now must decide whether he is sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole or without it.

A disgruntled soldier

Bales, a 39-year-old father of two who lived with his family in the Lake Tapps community in Pierce County, was on his fourth combat deployment at the time of the killings.

His defense attorneys are expected to cite a range of extenuating circumstances to marshal the argument that he should one day be allowed to seek parole.

Among other issues, Bales suffered from post traumatic stress, had a slight traumatic brain injury, had ingested Valium and steroids, and been drinking at points before the rampage. His team of attorneys has lined up several family members, friends and fellow soldiers as witnesses.

But prosecutors stressed throughout Tuesday’s proceedings that Bales has since stipulated he was in complete control of his actions and criminally responsible for what happened.

Both sides have agreed that Bales was a disgruntled soldier who had been passed over for promotions and at times told fellow soldiers that he didn’t care if he lived. He was deep in financial trouble, had stopped paying his mortgages on two homes, and complained of a bad marriage and unhappy home life.

After the massacres, Bales hiked back to his outpost in the darkness, cloaked in a blue cape — a doorway covering ripped from a home in the village of Najiban — to cover his bloodstained clothes.

He expressed surprise when fellow American soldiers — who by then had become aware of reports of the rampage ­— greeted him with their rifles pointing at him.

“The accused then stated, in a deflated tone, ‘Are you (expletive) kidding me?’ ” said Morse, recounting Bales’ statement.

With his wife, Kari, sitting in the gallery behind him, Bales sat stone-faced throughout most of Tuesday’s proceedings. But he averted his eyes when prosecutors showed graphic footage of medical aid being given to some of the victims, including Zardana, the girl suffering from a gunshot wound to the skull.

Emotional testimony

For the villagers, Tuesday’s hearing offered their first opportunity to confront Bales in person since the massacres at Alkozai and Najiban, two small villages near Camp Belambay where Bales was stationed. Two more Afghan villagers are expected to testify at some point later during the sentencing, which an Army spokeswoman said may last through the weekend.

“The bastard, he stood right in front of me!” exclaimed Mohammad Haji Naeem, a 60-year-old elder of Alkozai, whose voice rose as he described how Bales shot him and other family members. “I wanted to ask him, ‘What did I do?’ ”

Like the other Afghan witnesses, he spoke through an interpreter.

Haji Naeem, a village elder with a long gray beard and wearing a turban, later broke down when a prosecutor asked him to describe how he felt when he heard a son had also been shot.

“For God’s sake,” he sobbed into his hands, “don’t ask me any more questions.”

Earlier in the day, Lt. Col. Jeffery Nance, the judge of the proceedings, ruled that the entire recording of a phone conversation between Bales and his wife could be played.

Prosecutors alleged Monday that the couple’s laughing at times while discussing the charges against Bales during the call — taped while Bales was being held after the massacres — illustrates his lack of remorse.

The defense contended the recording that included such laughter was taken out of context and argued only the full audio should be played. The judge agreed.

Played Tuesday in court, the meandering recording at one point caught Bales laughing when he explained to his wife, “at least they dropped one count of murder against me.”

But it also provided moments in which the married father told his wife he loved her and worried for her future, and asked his young son, “Did you score a touchdown, today?”

Such touching moments were fleeting.

Immediately after the audio recording, two more Afghan villagers took the stand. Baraan Noorzia testified of seeing “the brains of my dead brother” spilled across the family home after the massacre.

The death left six children fatherless and a wife widowed, he said.

Another witness, a 5-year-old boy named Khan, haltingly told prosecutors that he suffers nightmares and is always fearful since his father was shot dead and he watched Bales point a gun at his baby brother.

When Army prosecutor Maj. Cara Hamaguchi asked the boy if he still dreams about his father, he replied: “What did I do wrong against Sgt. Bales that he shot my father?”

At that point, Bales — who had been watching the testimony intently — looked away.

Lewis Kamb: lkamb@seattletimes.com or 206-652-6611. Twitter: @lewiskamb

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