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U.S. hearing on Kandahar massacre to include video testimony from Afghans

Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, (R) 1st platoon sergeant, Blackhorse Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team
Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, (R) 1st platoon sergeant, Blackhorse Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team

By Laura L. Myers

SEATTLE (Reuters) - The preliminary court hearing next month in Washington state for the U.S. Army soldier charged with killing 16 Afghan civilians in a March rampage will include live video testimony from witnesses including villagers and Afghan soldiers.

U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales is scheduled to have a two-week evidentiary proceeding called an Article 32 hearing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord beginning on November 5, Army Lieutenant Colonel Gary Dangerfield said on Friday.

Bales, a decorated veteran of four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, is accused of walking off his base under cover of darkness and opening fire on civilians in their homes in at least two villages.

He faces 16 counts of premeditated murder and six counts of attempted murder, as well as charges of assault, wrongfully possessing and using steroids and alcohol while deployed, and destroying a laptop computer.

The March 11 mass shooting in Afghanistan's Kandahar province eroded already strained U.S.-Afghanistan relations.

Bales' civilian defense attorney, John Henry Browne, told Reuters that he and an Army prosecutor planned to question five to 15 Afghan villagers and military personnel as key witnesses from Kandahar Air Field.

Tracking down witnesses in Afghanistan has "been a real problem," Browne said. "A lot of them just don't want to cooperate with anyone."

Browne's co-attorney, Emma Scanlan, has interviewed soldiers in Afghanistan, but some Afghans wounded during the rampage were released from hospitals before she could interview them, Browne said.

"Some are still in medical care," Browne said, declining to specify where they were receiving treatment.

During the preliminary hearing, video testimony, possibly on Skype, would be beamed back to military officials and observers during the night at the Washington base, Browne said.

Other witnesses, from a potential pool of about 100, will testify in person at the Washington state base, Dangerfield said.

Browne said he was reviewing 5,000 pages of evidence, although other physical DNA and ballistics evidence is being processed by a U.S. military crime lab.

Bales faces a possible death penalty, as premeditated murder is a capital offense under the U.S. military code of justice.

"He's holding up. He's a strong fellow, but wants this process to move on," Browne said.

The Article 32 hearing's investigating officer is Colonel Lee Deneke, an Army reservist, Dangerfield said.

Deneke is also an assistant U.S. attorney in Tennessee, Browne said, where he serves as an Anti-Terrorism Advisory Council coordinator for the U.S. Attorney's Office. He has experience in military capital punishment cases, he added.

Bales is held at Leavenworth military prison in Kansas, but was assigned to the 3rd Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division headquartered in Washington state.

(Editing by Mary Slosson and Peter Cooney)

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