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Originally published Saturday, September 25, 2010 at 8:36 PM

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Army restricts access to photos of soldiers with Afghan corpses

The Army is strictly controlling access to several grisly photos of U.S. soldiers holding up Afghan corpses, images that were uncovered as part of an investigation into alleged war crimes.

Seattle Times staff reporter

The Army is strictly controlling access to several grisly photos of U.S. soldiers holding up Afghan corpses, images that were uncovered as part of an investigation into alleged war crimes.

Earlier this month, Army prosecutors at Joint Base Lewis-McChord turned over the photos to a military representative of civilian attorneys representing five soldiers accused of murdering three Afghan civilians and other crimes.

But an Army commander decided the photos should not be released. In an unusual move, prosecutors then demanded defense representatives at the base return the computer disk containing the photos, according to attorneys involved in the case.

The decision reflects concern among the Army's senior leadership that publication of such evidence could anger Afghan civilians at a time the United States is trying to win support for a counterinsurgency campaign against the Taliban.

"I have determined that the risk of potential prejudice to the substantive rights of the accused, as well as negative impact on the reputation of the armed forces, associated with the potential public dissemination of these images outweighs minimal hardship upon the accused as a result of this order," Col. Barry Huggins wrote in a memorandum reported in The New York Times.

Huggins is commander of the 2nd Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

The photos are being held at Lewis-McChord and are available to defense attorneys to view but not retain for their records.

Civilian defense attorneys, most of whom live in other states, are rankled by the government's actions.

"We've formally requested that the government provide copies of the photos," said Daniel Conway, a civilian attorney who represents Pfc. Andrew Holmes, one of five soldiers accused of involvement in murder.

"We certainly understand the sensitivity of the photos, but there has to be a balance between the national security and our client's constitutional right to prepare a defense to charges that were made public by the government."

The fight over distribution of these photos reflects Army concerns the images could help fuel more anti-American sentiment in southern Afghanistan, where the slayings took place. The power of photos to stir up anti-American sentiment was demonstrated in 2004, with the publication of pictures depicting abusive treatment of Iraqis detained at Abu Ghraib prison.

The Army investigation of the Afghan slayings resulted in charges filed against five soldiers accused of involvement in one or more of the three slayings. Seven other soldiers are accused of crimes ranging from the possession of body parts to obstruction of justice and illegal use of a controlled substance, hashish, in the case.

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For military purposes, soldiers may take photos of Taliban killed in action.

But they are not supposed to take photos for personal possession or pose with the bodies.

In charging documents released this year, Army officials accused one of the brigade's soldiers, Cpl. Emmitt Quintal, with wrongful possession of "visual images of human casualties."

Conway and Coby Vokey, another civilian defense attorney, are unsure whether the Afghan corpses depicted in the photos are alleged murder victims or photos of dead Taliban insurgents who may have been killed in battle.

The photos are part of the evidence prosecutors have gathered as they piece together cases against the soldiers from the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Regiment (since renamed the 2nd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Regiment).

The crimes allegedly committed by some of the soldiers include possession of a finger, leg bone and skull taken from Afghan corpses.

The prosecution of the accused soldiers is expected to unfold over many months. The first pretrial hearing is scheduled for Monday, when Spc. Jeremy Morlock will face charges of involvement in three slayings and other war crimes.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

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