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Updated Sunday, November 11, 2012 at 10:16 PM

Injured Afghan child's testimony adds element of hope to hearing

By Hal Bernton
Seattle Times staff reporter

JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD — When she first saw an Army doctor on the morning of March 11, Zardana had a gunshot wound to her head that left her hair flecked with brain matter.

The girl's condition was so dire that the doctor initially set her aside to treat the other wounded Afghans who arrived with her at the base in Kandahar province. Only later did he make a last-ditch effort to get a breathing tube into her, and save her life.

After a marathon journey of recovery that took her to a San Diego hospital for months of treatment, the 7-year-old Zardana — wearing a purple headscarf and flashing a shy smile — sat down Sunday morning at a big table at a military base in Kandahar. She had come to testify via video in the pretrial hearing of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, the Lewis-McChord soldier prosecutors allege wounded Zardana during an hours-long rampage that took the lives of 16 people and wounded six others.

A translator said Zardana had some trouble standing, so she was sitting down when asked to raise her right hand and swear to tell the truth.

"Yes, I do. And I promise not to lie," she exclaimed.

Zardana spoke only briefly. She affirmed that the soldier who shot her that night in the village of Alkozai wore a black T-shirt and khaki pants.

But her appearance — testament to a remarkable recovery — offered a welcome moment of hope in an Army courtroom in Western Washington that had entered a sixth day of often dark testimony about Bales and his alleged crimes in two villages near the small outpost where he was based.

The Article 32 hearing is gathering evidence to be reviewed by a presiding officer, who will decide whether Bales will face a court-martial.

After Zardana left the witness table, the tales of horror continued. This time, another young girl who lived in the first village — Alkozai — testified that Bales allegedly visited that night. Her name was Robina. She spoke of the carnage wrought by an American soldier she said came into her compound before dawn.

"My father was shot in his legs," Robina testified. "At the same time, he was cursing at the individual, and then he was shot in the throat and the chest." Robina said some of the bullet fragments passed through her father and struck her in the leg.

She also testified how the American soldier shot and killed her sister, who had come to her father's side and covered herself in a blanket.

"The bullet went through her index finger, and then through her skull," Robina said.

During this hearing, which unfolded Saturday evening Pacific time, some of the testimony raised questions about whether Bales acted alone as alleged by prosecutors.

The first witness at the hearing, called by Bales' defense team, was Special Agent Leona Mansapit, an Army criminal investigator based in southern Afghanistan earlier this year, and she testified in person in the Lewis-McChord courtroom.

In June, Mansapit interviewed Masouma Dawud, who said two soldiers were involved in the killing of her husband, Mohammad Dawud, in the village of Najiban.

According to Mansapit, Masouma Dawud described the following sequence of events in the June interview:

Masouma said one of the soldiers came into the house yelling about the Taliban and started rummaging through the house, while a second soldier stood in the doorway.

Masouma said the second soldier blocked her way and that one of the soldiers then shot her husband.

Masouma also indicated that she heard helicopters overhead during the attack, Mansapit said.

Masouma has not testified at the pretrial hearing, nor have any other women from the two villages.

Masouma's brother-in-law, Mullah Baraan, did testify from Afghanistan during the weekend hearing. He did not witness the killings, but came to the scene afterward.

Under cross-examination from the defense team, Baraan testified that he also was initially told by his brother's widow that two soldiers were involved in the killing.

But Baraan, who has received $50,000 in compensation payments to help take care of his brother's family, also said he now believes only one soldier was involved.

Defense attorney John Henry Browne, who traveled to Afghanistan for the hearing, asked Baraan why he had changed his view of what happened March 11.

"I talked to my brother's wife before I was coming ... (to testify) and I had her tell me ... what happened. So that's why," Baraan said.

Prosecutors during the pretrial hearings have portrayed Bales as a lone killer.

In the weeks after the killings, Army investigators checked allegations that a second soldier went with Bales to the first village of Alkozai, according to testimony at the hearing.

They also took DNA samples of the other soldiers' clothes but did not find the presence of another person's blood, as was found on Bales' clothes.

The evidence — as laid out during the pretrial hearing — would appear to make it more unlikely that a second soldier was involved in the second wave of killings at Najiban. While Bales allegedly was in that village, Special Forces and infantry soldiers did a head count and determined no one else was missing, according to court testimony.

Several soldiers testified they met Bales as he walked back to the base on March 11 from the direction of Najiban.

They did not see any other soldiers return that night, and more than 10 minutes of surveillance video played during the hearing showed only one soldier — allegedly Bales — returning from Najiban to the base.

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



Staff Sgt. Robert Bales




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