JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. – The U.S. soldier who massacred 16 Afghan civilians last year in one of the worst atrocities of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars was sentenced Friday to life in prison with no chance of parole – the most severe sentence possible, but one that left surviving victims and relatives of the dead deeply unsatisfied.
“We wanted this murderer to be executed,” said Hajji Mohammad Wazir, who lost 11 family members in the attack by Staff Sgt. Robert Bales. “We were brought all the way from Afghanistan to see if justice would be served. Not our way – justice was served the American way.”
Bales, 40, pleaded guilty in June in a deal to avoid the death penalty for his March 11, 2012, raids near his remote outpost in Kandahar province, when he stalked through mud-walled compounds and shot 22 people – 17 of them women and children.
The only possible sentences were life in prison without parole, or life with the possibility of release after 20 years. The soldier showed no emotion as the six jurors chose the former after deliberating less than two hours.
His mother, sitting in the front row of the court, bowed her head, rocked in her seat, and wept.
An interpreter flashed a thumbs-up sign to a row of Afghan villagers who were either wounded or lost family members in the March 11, 2012 attacks.
“I saw his mother trying to cry, but at least she can go visit him,” Hajji Mohammad Naim, who was shot in the neck, said after the sentencing. “What about us? Our family members are actually 6 feet under.”
The villagers, who traveled nearly 7,000 miles to testify against Bales, spoke with reporters through an interpreter and asked what it would be like for someone to break into American homes and slaughter their families. A boy of about 13 displayed a scar from a bullet wound to his leg.
They also criticized American involvement in Afghanistan, saying the soldiers came to build their country but have done no such thing.
Bales never offered an explanation for why he armed himself with a 9 mm pistol and an M-4 rifle and left his post on the killing mission, but he apologized on the witness stand Thursday and described the slaughter as an “act of cowardice, behind a mask of fear … and bravado.”
“In just a few short hours, Sgt. Bales wiped out generations,” Lt. Col. Jay Morse told the jury in his closing argument. “Sgt. Bales dares to ask you for mercy when he has shown none.”
A commanding general overseeing the court-martial has the option of reducing the sentence to life with the possibility of parole.