TACOMA, Washington (Reuters) - A court-martial date of April 4 was set on Tuesday for the alleged ringleader of a U.S. infantry platoon accused of murdering and assaulting unarmed Afghan civilians last year.
Army Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs is charged with three counts of premeditated murder, as well as with cutting off fingers from corpses and beating a fellow soldier who had alerted superiors about widespread hashish use in his unit.
But Gibbs, 26, from Billings, Montana, delayed entering a plea to the charges during a 15-minute arraignment proceeding at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington.
Prosecutors have described Gibbs as the chief instigator among 12 Stryker Brigade soldiers accused in connection with the most serious alleged atrocities by U.S. military personnel since the war in Afghanistan began in late 2001.
Five of the soldiers, including Gibbs, are charged with premeditated murder in the slayings of three unarmed Afghan villagers whose deaths were staged to look like legitimate combat casualties.
Gibbs and several others also are accused of taking fingers and other body parts from Afghan corpses as war trophies while stationed in Kandahar province, a Taliban stronghold.
But the most potentially explosive element of the case is the existence of some 4,000 photographs sealed from public view, including some of soldiers posing with Afghan casualties, drawing comparisons to the inflammatory Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq in 2004.
Gibbs, muscular and well-built, wearing Army fatigues with closely cropped hair, stood erect and spoke little during the hearing other than a barely audible “yes sir” when asked routine questions about understanding his rights.
His wife, Chelsy, was present for the hearing.
Judge Kwasi Hawks set aside five days for the military trial, starting April 4.
Civilian defense lawyer Phillip Stackhouse gave no reason for deferring a plea other than to call it “standard” procedure and denied he was seeking a plea deal with prosecutors.
Now being held in a naval brig in Washington state, Gibbs faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted of all 16 counts against him.
Two of the 12 Stryker Brigade soldiers charged with lesser crimes than murder have pleaded guilty in court-martial proceedings connected with the case so far.
Army medic Robert Stevens was sentenced on December 1 to nine months in prison and demoted in rank but allowed to remain in the military after admitting to shooting at unarmed civilians.
Corporal Emmitt Quintal was sentenced on January 5 to 90 days hard labor and discharged for keeping war souvenir photos of casualties, beating a fellow platoon member and smoking hash.
Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Greg McCune