BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine published photos on Monday of American soldiers posed over the bloodied corpse of an Afghan civilian whose slaying is being prosecuted by the U.S. military as premeditated murder.
Disclosure of the images, among dozens seized as evidence in the prosecutions but kept sealed from public view by the military, prompted the U.S. Army to issue an apology “for the distress these photos cause” and condemning actions depicted in them as “repugnant.”
One photo shows a soldier identified as Army Specialist Jeremy Morlock, 23, of Wasilla, Alaska, broadly smiling in sunglasses as he crouches beside the bloodied, prone body of a man whose head he is holding up for the camera by the hair.
A second soldier, Private First Class Andrew Holmes, 20, is seen in a separate photo kneeling over the same corpse, also raising the victim’s head by the hair.
As published by Der Spiegel and circulated elsewhere on the Internet, the face of the body has been deliberately blurred in the pictures to render it unidentifiable.
Lawyers for both soldiers confirmed to Reuters that their respective clients are the soldiers who appear in the images. Holmes’ attorney, Daniel Conway, said the body in both photos is that of the unarmed Afghan man both men are accused of slaying on January 15, 2010, with a grenade blast and rifle fire.
Morlock and Holmes are among five Stryker Brigade soldiers facing court-martial at Joint Base Lewis McChord near Tacoma, Washington, on charges of premeditated murder stemming from the deaths of three Afghan villagers whose killings were allegedly staged to look like legitimate combat casualties.
According to his lawyers, Morlock has agreed to plead guilty later this week to three counts of murder and other offenses and to testify against his co-defendants.
Under the plea deal, still subject to approval by a military judge, he would receive a 24-year prison sentence, as opposed to the life term he faced if convicted of all charges in a trial.
Holmes has reached no such deal. Defense lawyers insist Holmes is innocent and have sought, so far unsuccessfully, to force the military to unseal a number of photos that they say would help exonerate their client for the single murder with which he is charged.
The murder cases, which grew out of a probe into hashish use by American GIs, stand as the most serious prosecution of alleged atrocities by U.S. military in Afghanistan since the war there began in late 2001.
Photos like those published by Der Spiegel have drawn comparisons with pictures of Iraqi prisoners taken by U.S. military personnel at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2004.
In its statement, the U.S. Army said the photos depicted “actions repugnant to us as human beings and contrary to the standards and values of the United States Army.”
“We apologize for the distress these photos cause,” said the statement, issued through the U.S. Embassy in Berlin, adding that actions shown in the photographs were now the subject of court-martial proceedings.
“The photos appear in stark contrast to the discipline, professionalism and respect that have characterized our soldiers’ performance during nearly 10 years of sustained operations (in Afghanistan).”
Geoffrey Nathan, one of Morlock’s civilian attorneys, said publication of the photos would have no impact on the outcome of his client’s case.
“The court will render its verdict based upon the pleadings and agreement among the litigants, and the photos are not in evidence,” he told Reuters in an e-mail.
Reporting by David Stamp in Berlin; Additional reporting by Laura L. Myers in Seattle; Editing by Louise Ireland, Steve Gorman and Greg McCune