TACOMA, Washington (Reuters) - A U.S. Army private identified as a whistleblower in the investigation of rogue infantrymen accused of terrorizing Afghan civilians and fellow soldiers appeared in military court on Thursday but refused to testify.
Private first-class Justin Stoner was called as a witness in the prosecution of Staff Sergeant David Bram, the second of 12 soldiers to face a hearing in a case that grew from a probe of hashish abuse into charges of atrocities that Pentagon officials have said could undermine the U.S. war effort.
A court-martial was ordered this month for Army Specialist Jeremy Morlock, the first to be charged in the case and one of five accused of killing unarmed Afghan civilians for sport.
Several of the defendants, including Morlock, are alleged to have collected fingers and other body parts removed from dead Afghans as war trophies.
But the most potentially explosive elements of the case are dozens of ghoulish photographs that Bram, Morlock and two others are accused of having taken of war dead, some of them showing U.S. soldiers posed with dead Afghans.
Prosecutors say the incidents occurred between January and May while the men were deployed with the 5th Stryker Brigade in Kandahar province, a stronghold for Taliban insurgents.
The photos, found on soldiers’ computers seized as evidence in the case, have been kept secret by the military.
Their existence has drawn comparisons to pictures of naked Iraqi prisoners taken by U.S. military personnel at the Abu Ghraib prison that sparked worldwide outrage in 2004 against U.S. conduct of the war in Iraq.
Four soldiers besides Morlock are charged with premeditated murder. Seven others, including Bram, the subject of Thursday’s fact-finding hearing, face lesser offenses ranging from assault and conspiracy to drug abuse and dereliction of duty.
Bram and Morlock are among several soldiers accused of severely beating Stoner to keep him from informing on them in what began as an Army investigation into hashish smoking by members of the platoon.
Photos taken of Stoner after the assault and presented in court on Thursday showed the slender private with red welts and bruises across his body.
Stoner, 21, who has not been charged, was seen as a key witness for the prosecution. But when the baby-faced soldier from Lebanon, Pennsylvania, finally took the witness stand, he said little.
“I respectively invoke my right not to testify or answer questions,” he said before being excused.
He was one of 12 individuals to cite their U.S. constitutional right against self-incrimination, most notably Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, a former squad leader in Afghanistan and accused mastermind behind the killings of civilians and intimidation of other troops. Gibbs did not appear in court.
Evidence presented during the hearing, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington, will be used to determine whether Bram, 27, of Vacaville, California, is court-martialed.
Testifying for the defense, Sergeant first-class Jason Ditmer described Bram as “always positive, always motivated” and as “one of the best squad leaders I’ve worked with.”
But referring to the photos of Afghan corpses during closing arguments, prosecutor Dre Leblanc said: “You saw that Sergeant Bram was posing with part of a dead Afghani.”
A decision on whether he stands trial could take weeks.
Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Will Dunham and Doina Chiacu