Exclusive: U.S. soldier faces trial for Afghan civilian murder

METHERLAM, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Yar Mohammad was in Iran one afternoon last September when his electrician father was taken from his home in an Afghan village by U.S. and Afghan soldiers, beaten in a school bathroom and then shot in the head.

By the time he returned the funeral was over, but neighbors had saved cellphone pictures of the bloodied concrete where they said Atta Mohammad spent his last minutes, and of the battered body being carried to his grave.

They told Yar Mohammad, who worked as a laborer in Iran, about the sound of a single deadly shot ringing out through the village.

A U.S. soldier now faces trial for pulling the trigger, but Atta’s family, part of the vast rural Afghan population whose support is vital to turning the tide in a decade-long war against Islamist insurgents, say they have been given no compensation and little sense of justice.

“If I had power I would take revenge, but I have no power,” said Yar Mohammad, sadly unwrapping one of his few mementos of his father, a picture of a proud older man in a smart turban, superimposed on an ocean sunset.

It is hard to reconcile with the visibly bruised face, surrounded by flowers and tinsel, on videos of the burial.

Sergeant Derrick A. Miller from the Connecticut National Guard is charged with murder, and will appear before a court martial at Fort Campbell in Kentucky on June 6, 2011, an army spokeswoman said in a statement.

The prosecution charges that Miller “at or near Masamute Bala, Afghanistan, on or about September 26, 2010, (did) with premeditation murder Atta Mohammed, son of Mohammed Akbar, by means of shooting him in the head with an M9 9mm Beretta pistol.”

The army declined any further comment about the case. And this sparse information is as much as Atta Mohammad’s family say they have been given about the loss of a loved one and breadwinner.

The U.S. and other foreign forces fighting in Afghanistan have tightened regulations in recent years to try and prevent civilian casualties, recognizing them as a strategic problem.

But they have done little to tighten up a chaotic system of justice and support for the families of victims.

The lack of support is systemic, long-standing and undermines the impact of billions of dollars spent on aid and years of military rules aimed at reducing civilian deaths, experts say.

“It is important that the U.S. is holding their soldiers accountable for wrongdoing,” said Sarah Holewinski, executive director of advocacy organization Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict.

“They must also be accountable, however, to the victims’ families and ensure they are doing everything they can to dignify their tragic losses -- communicate, investigate, make amends.”


No one from Yar Mohammad’s village understands why 60-year-old Atta Mohammad, who worked on a small hydropower project nearby, was taken away and killed. His only apparent offence was failing to hear an order to get out of a patrol’s way.

“My father was a little bit deaf. He was passing American soldiers who were patrolling in the area. The Americans shouted to him to stop and he did not pay attention, so when he came home the Americans directly came after him,” Yar Mohammad said.

After the killing, the body was passed around between local officials, foreign troops, Afghan police and a hospital before his family was finally summoned to collect it, in what the family saw as a macabre effort to avoid blame for a suspect shooting.

Accidental civilian deaths in firefights, or during raids targeting insurgents, are a regular occurrence, but daylight killings, apparently in cold blood, are rare.

Miller’s trial appears to be the first such case since a group of soldiers were accused of forming a “kill team” in southern Afghanistan that murdered civilians for fun last year, although military opacity means there could potentially be similar, unreported prosecutions.

Such egregious killings, however, are seen by many Afghans as the thin end of a wedge of unjustified civilian deaths, which fuels anger at foreign forces and helps insurgents. The NATO-led force in Afghanistan says last year 472 non-combatants were killed or injured by coalition forces last year.

“I suggest American forces don’t perform these activities in the future or the number of their enemies will increase,” Yar Mohammad told Reuters in government offices in the capital of Laghman province.

Across Afghanistan as a whole, the Taliban are responsible for far more deaths than foreign forces, in suicide attacks, from bombs planted for military or government vehicles, or through the execution of perceived spies or collaborators.

But in Laghman, as in many areas where control is ebbing from the government, the Taliban are not seen as the main threat.

“The Taliban does not have proper weapons and tools so most of the casualties are from American bombardments,” Yar Mohammad said. As grim proof, a night-time bombing raid on the village killed his uncle less than six months after his father’s death.


A sense that justice is being done can go a long way toward easing anger over civilian deaths.

“At first we were saying all Americans are our enemies, but we identified the person responsible and now only appeal for him to go to trial,” Yar Mohammad said.

Yet there seems little attempt to communicate the military’s efforts to hold Sergeant Miller to account to those with most at stake, or help the family deal with their economic problems.

The pattern is repeated across Afghanistan.

“In the last year, troops have gotten better at apologizing and compensating, but a majority of civilians still fall through the cracks for a variety of reasons,” said Erica Gaston, a human rights lawyer and Afghanistan expert at Open Society Foundations.

It took days of emails and phone calls by Reuters to get confirmation of the charges against Miller, even though the military were given the basic details, including date and location of the shooting and his unit.

The U.S. army said it does not keep a database of ongoing trials of soldiers because it would be too expensive, and does not have a centralized record of convictions. The Department of Defense did not respond to questions about similar cases in other branches of the military.

There appears to have been almost no change or improvement in a weak, haphazard system since Professor Philip Alston, the U.N. special rapporteur on extra-judicial killings, visited Afghanistan in 2008.

“Seeking clarification from international forces is like entering a maze, one that I also experienced myself,” wrote professor Alston, whose status, education and contacts left him little better informed than an illiterate Afghan farmer.

“The international forces in Afghanistan should take seriously the principles of accountability and transparency, the importance of which they so frequently proclaim in other contexts,” he added, in a report on the visit.

After months of silence and petitioning officials, Yar Mohammad was invited in January to meet a small group from the U.S. military -- he does not know their name or rank -- in nearby Jalalabad city, where they told him about the trial date.

Five witnesses to his father’s abduction accompanied him and gave testimony, but the Afghans left without contacts for a military liaison or even a promise they would be kept updated.

Yar Mohammad simply shrugs when asked about compensation, although he has had to give up hope of returning to Iran and now works as a day laborer in the fields of other villagers.

“I didn’t ask about compensation, it is not right for me to focus on money after they killed my father,” he said.

Additional reporting by Rafiq Sherzad; Editing by Paul Tait, Sanjeev Miglani and Miral Fahmy