TACOMA, Washington (Reuters) - The first U.S. soldier court-martialed in the prosecution of 12 infantrymen accused of terrorizing unarmed Afghan civilians pleaded guilty on Wednesday to assault and other charges and agreed to testify against his co-defendants.
Staff Sergeant Robert Stevens, 25, an Army medic from Portland, Oregon, admitted to opening fire on two Afghan farmers for no apparent reason. He and other troops were acting on orders from a squad leader during a patrol in March.
The charge of aggravated assault with a dangerous weapon was the most serious of four offenses Stevens admitted to as his court-martial got under way at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma.
The case began as an investigation into hashish use among soldiers who were part of an infantry unit then known as the 5th Stryker Brigade. But the investigation has grown into the most serious prosecution of alleged atrocities by U.S. military personnel in nearly nine years of conflict in Afghanistan.
Five of the 12 soldiers charged in the case are accused of premeditated murder, and several are alleged to have collected severed fingers and other human remains from Afghan dead as war trophies.
But the most potentially explosive aspect of the case are dozens of grisly photos that four of the troops are accused of having taken of war dead, some of them showing U.S. soldiers posing with Afghan corpses.
The inflammatory nature of the images, which have so far been sealed from public view, has drawn comparisons with pictures of Iraqi prisoners taken by U.S. military personnel at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2004.
Stevens, though not regarded as one of the leading figures in the case, was court-martialed first because he waived his rights to a preliminary proceeding and to striking a plea agreement with prosecutors.
As part of the deal, military prosecutors said they would grant Stevens immunity from further charges in exchange for his testimony against the 11 others in the investigation.
Asked by the presiding officer why he decided to plead guilty to charges that carry a possible maximum penalty of 19 1/2 years in prison, Stevens answered in a barely audible voice: “I performed those actions, and I did it, your honor.”
The three other charges included wrongfully tossing a grenade between two village compounds during a convoy last spring, making false statements to military investigators and dereliction of duty.
He pleaded not guilty to a fifth charge, conspiracy to commit assault, stemming from the shooting incident involving two Afghan farmers.
Stevens said he and other troops who encountered the two civilians while on patrol opened fire on them when ordered to do so by Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, identified by prosecutors as the ringleader of a rogue infantry platoon at the heart of the investigation.
“We observed (the) Afghans for a good two minutes,” Stevens recalled of first seeing the farmers. “I knew they were no threat. One had a shovel over his shoulder.”
He said he saw the two men crouch down when soldiers opened fire at Gibbs’ command. Stevens said he aimed his fire 75 yards to the left of the two men to deliberately avoid hitting them.
Gibbs is one of five soldiers charged with murder in the separate slayings of three other unarmed Afghan villagers whose deaths were allegedly staged to appear as legitimate combat casualties. Seven other soldiers, including Stevens, face lesser offenses.
Writing by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Greg McCune