TACOMA, Wash (Reuters) - A U.S. Army sergeant accused of murdering three unarmed Afghan civilians also led several troops in beating up a fellow soldier for informing on their drug use, then threatened to kill him unless he “shut up,” the soldier testified on Thursday.
Army Specialist Justin Stoner was the latest member of the infantry unit formerly known as the 5th Stryker Brigade called to the witness stand as prosecution testimony in the court-martial of Sergeant Calvin Gibbs entered its fourth day.
Gibbs is the accused ringleader in the most egregious case of atrocities U.S. military personnel are accused of committing during 10 years of war in Afghanistan.
He is the highest-ranking of five enlisted men charged with murdering Afghan villagers in random killings disguised as legitimate combat engagements while on patrol last year in Kandahar province.
Seized photos displayed as evidence in the case showing Gibbs and other soldiers posed grinning with the bodies of Afghan casualties have drawn comparisons to the inflammatory Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal in Iraq in 2004.
Gibbs, 26, of Billings, Montana, was also charged with illegally opening fire on Afghan civilians and cutting fingers off of corpses as war trophies, as well with beating Stoner and threatening his life.
Stoner testified that Gibbs led several members of their platoon to gang up on him as punishment for his having reported rampant hashish use to their superiors.
It was the military’s probe of drug abuse in the unit that led investigators to uncover more serious misconduct, including unprovoked assaults and killings.
Stoner, 22, from Lebanon, Pennsylvania, testified that the soldiers who beat him mostly avoided hitting him in the head, so that any marks left would be concealed under his clothing.
“They kept everything below my neckline,” except for one soldier who appeared to lose control in punching him in the face, fracturing his eye socket, Stoner said.
He was so shaken afterward, Stoner recounted, that he put on body armor and sat on his bunk with his rifle by his side.
Gibbs returned to Stoner’s quarters a short time later, Stoner testified.
“He sat there very, very calm and peacefully, playing with something in his hand,” Stoner told the jury panel. “Then he said, ‘You understand why we did that, We had to make a point.’”
Gibbs then opened his hand to reveal two severed fingers he had rolled up in a cloth, and said, “‘If you don’t want to end up like this ... you’ll leave it alone,’” Stoner recounted. “He was very calm, very cool, very collected. I took that to heart.”
Unless he “shut up,” Gibbs told Stoner, he would kill him the next time they were on patrol, Stoner testified, adding, “It wouldn’t be hard to take me out and execute me.”
If convicted on all charges, Gibbs faces a maximum sentence of life in prison without parole. He pleaded not guilty on the first day of his court-martial last Friday. The trial at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma was expected to run through at least the end of next week.
Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston