US soldier guilty of murdering Afghans

A United States soldier accused of exhorting his underlings to slaughter three civilians for sport was convicted of murder, conspiracy and other charges yesterday in one of the most gruesome cases to emerge from the Afghan war.

Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs was the highest ranking of five soldiers charged in the deaths of the unarmed men during patrols in Kandahar province early last year. At his seven-day court martial at Joint Base Lewis-McChord south of Seattle, the 26-year-old acknowledged cutting fingers off corpses and yanking out a victim’s tooth to keep as war trophies, “like keeping the antlers off a deer you’d shoot”.

But he insisted he wasn’t involved in the first or third killings, and in the second he merely returned fire.

Prosecutors said Gibbs and his co-defendants knew the victims posed no danger, but dropped weapons by their dead bodies to make them appear to have been combatants.

Three of the co-defendants pleaded guilty, and two of them testified against him, portraying him as an imposing, bloodthirsty leader. Gibbs’ lawyer insisted they conspired to blame him for what they had done and told the five jurors that the case represented “the ultimate betrayal of an infantryman”.

The jury deliberated for about four hours before convicting him. He faces, at minimum, life with parole, and at maximum life without it. The sentencing hearing began immediately after the verdict was announced, with Gibbs’ lawyer, Phil Stackhouse, asking the jury for leniency on his behalf and noting that Gibbs could be eligible for parole after 10 years under a life sentence.

The investigation into the 5th Stryker Brigade unit exposed widespread misconduct in a platoon that was out of control, in the words of a prosecutor, Major Robert Stelle.

The wrongdoing included smoking cannabis, the mutilation and photography of Afghan remains, and the gang-beating of a soldier who reported the drug use.

In all, 12 soldiers were charged; all but two have now been convicted.

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