SEATTLE (Reuters) - Military prosecutors on Tuesday charged a sixth U.S. soldier with direct involvement in the murder of unarmed Afghan civilians, implicating a sergeant who was referred earlier for court-martial on lesser offenses.
It marked the first time since the spring of 2010 that the Army has formally brought new charges in an investigation that already ranks as the most serious prosecution of alleged U.S. military atrocities during 10 years of war in Afghanistan.
Staff Sergeant David Bram, 27, was newly charged with a single count each of "solicitation to commit premeditated murder," of "failure to report crimes including murder," and of "planting evidence near the body of an Afghan national."
He also is charged with "unlawfully engaging in murder scenario conversations with subordinates" and with "aggravated assault with a dangerous weapon" on Afghan civilians.
A spokeswoman for Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the home Army installation of Bram and his co-defendants near Tacoma, Washington, said she had no further immediate information on details of the allegations.
Documents outlining the circumstances of the charges were not expected to be publicly released before Wednesday, according to the spokeswoman, Major Kathleen Turner.
For the time being, Bram remains free from pretrial confinement, Turner said. Bram's defense lawyers could not immediately be reached for comment.
Bram was ordered last year to stand trial on five other charges, the most serious of which accused him of plotting and taking part in the beating of another GI who some soldiers feared might blow the whistle on hashish use to investigators.
If convicted of all 10 charges against him, Bram, of Vacaville, California, could be sentenced to as much as 21 years in prison, the Army said.
Five other members of the infantry unit formerly called the 5th Stryker Brigade have been charged with premeditated murder in connection with three Afghan civilian slayings investigators say were staged to look like legitimate combat casualties.
One of those soldiers, Specialist Jeremy Morlock, was sentenced in March to 24 years in prison after he pleaded guilty to three counts of murder, agreed to testify against his co-defendants and apologized in court, saying, "I lost my moral compass."
Seven others, including Bram, were charged with lesser offenses.
The case was brought into grim relief in March when several photos related to the killings were published, first by Germany's Der Spiegel magazine and then by Rolling Stone.
In two of those images, Morlock and another soldier, Andrew Holmes, were shown separately crouched over the bloodied body of a 15-year-old Afghan villager, holding his head up for the camera by the hair, just after he had been killed.
During his pretrial evidentiary hearing in October, a military prosecutor testified that another photo seized by the Army and sealed from public view showed Bram and a second GI smiling as he posed with the partial corpse of an Afghan.
"It's clear it's not for official purposes," prosecutor Andre Leblanc said during that hearing. "There's no reason these soldiers should be smiling."