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Updated Saturday, November 10, 2012 at 09:46 PM

Bales' alleged victims testify from Afghanistan at pretrial hearing

By Hal Bernton
Seattle Times staff reporter

JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD — Long before dawn on March 11, Haji Naim recalls waking to the sound of barking dogs. He heard shots, and knocks on the door from a neighbor's frightened children. Then, he saw an American soldier with a light on his head climb over a wall and come up next to him.

"He didn't say anything to me. When he came ... he just started shooting me," the gray-bearded father of nine testified at a military base in southern Afghanistan that was connected through video streaming to a courtroom at this Western Washington base.

Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, the man whom Army prosecutors say fired those shots, sat in the Washington court in an extraordinary Friday overnight pretrial hearing that enabled Bales to see and hear from some of his alleged victims as they recounted some horrible events.

Prosecutors have charged Bales with killing 16 people and wounding six others early March 11 in unauthorized, solo forays to two villages near the small U.S. military outpost where he served with other infantry and Special Forces soldiers.

The hearing began at 7:30 p.m. Friday and ran more than two hours past midnight, to accommodate daytime testimony in Afghanistan. The Afghans' testimony included graphic details of the carnage wrought by what witnesses said was one U.S. soldier.

Naim, through a translator, says he was shot three times, including a bullet to the neck. He says the shooter was as close as the water bottle perched next to him on the table that served as a witness stand. Yet, somehow, the wiry farmer from the village of Alkozai survived.

Three of Naim's sons also testified at the pretrial hearing. The eldest helped load Naim and four other wounded villagers into a truck and take them to a U.S. base for treatment.

Another son testified how he watched a grandmother gunned down by the American intruder.

The youngest to testify was Sadiquallah, a slender boy who gave his age as "13 or 14," and whose white-capped head barely rose above the table used as a witness stand.

Sadiquallah recalled that he saw the soldier in his home. Afraid, he and other children ran to a storage room but the gunman still came after them.

Though he was hiding behind a curtain, a bullet pierced his ear and injured his skull. Another child hiding behind the curtain also was injured.

Prosecutors allege that Bales killed most of his victims in a second village, Najiban, and the hearing included grisly details of the crime scene.

In testimony, Khamal Adin testified that 11 people died at the home of his cousin Haji Wazir Mohammed, who was away on a business trip when the massacre took place.

Adin said he visited his cousin's compound at about 7 a.m., which would have been just a few hours after the crimes took place.

He found Haji Wazir Mohammed's mother in an entryway, her head split open from a gunshot wound.

Adin testified that the dead included seven children under the age of 16, including four who were younger than 6. Their bodies were found in a pile and burned, according to his testimony.

The youngest child, whose age he estimated at under 2 years old, was the only one who did not appear to have gunshot wounds to the head.

Adin said he joined that day with other villagers to separate the female bodies from the males, wrap them and take them out of the compound.

In a show of protest before burial, they were loaded into vehicles and taken to an area outside Camp Belambay, where Bales was based.

"My request is to get justice," Adin said.

Prosecutors have portrayed Bales as lucid and coherent after he was apprehended upon his return from Najiban.

The hearing is to gather evidence that will be reviewed by a presiding officer to determine whether the Army will go forward with a general court-martial. Bales could face a death sentence if convicted.

Defense attorneys have said Bales sustained a traumatic brain injury on a deployment to Iraq, and suggested he has post-traumatic stress disorder. In cross examinations of soldiers during earlier days of the pretrial hearing, they have sought to document some of his erratic, quick-to-anger behavior in the weeks before March 11.

On Friday, as it has been throughout five days of the hearing, it was difficult to detect any outward sign of emotion in the 39-year-old Bales, a stocky man with short-cropped hair and a balding patch on his head.

Sometimes, Bales slumped back in his chair. Sometimes, he leaned forward and put his hand to his chin.

During Adin's testimony, Bales switched chairs so he could closely watch a big video monitor mounted on a wall rather than peer at a smaller laptop screen.

Also on Friday, prosecutors questioned two Afghan soldiers who were on guard duty at Belambay in the early hours of March 11.

One testified that he was "shocked and nervous" to see an unidentified American soldier return to the base at 1:30 a.m. from the north, which is the direction of Alkozai.

A second Afghan soldier, Tosh Ali, said that he saw an unidentified American leave Belambay at about 2:30 a.m. That American was laughing before heading out into the night.

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



Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, charged with killing 16 Afghan civilians




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