AN American soldier has been sentenced to 24 years in prison after saying “the plan was to kill people” in a conspiracy with four fellow soldiers to kill unarmed Afghan civilians.

Military judge Lieutenant Colonel Kwasi Hawks said he intended to sentence Specialist Jeremy Morlock to life in prison with the possibility of parole but was bound by a plea deal. Morlock will receive 352 days off his sentence for time served.

His sentencing came after he pleaded guilty to three counts of murder and one count each of conspiracy, obstructing justice and illegal drug use at his court martial at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state.

The 22-year-old soldier from Wasilla, Alaska, is a key figure in a war crimes probe that implicates a dozen members of his platoon and has raised some of the most serious criminal allegations to come from the war in Afghanistan.

He was accused of taking a lead role in the killings of three unarmed Afghan men in Kandahar province in January, February and May 2010.

Asked by the judge whether the plan was to shoot at people to scare them, or to shoot to kill, Morlock replied, “The plan was to kill people.”

Morlock was the first of five soldiers from the 5th Stryker Brigade to be court-martialled – something his lawyer Geoffrey Nathan characterised as an advantage. Under the plea deal, Morlock agreed to testify against his co-defendants.

“The first up gets the best deal,” Nathan told AP, noting that even under the maximum sentence agreed to in the plea deal, Morlock would serve no more than eight years before becoming eligible for parole.

Morlock told the judge that he and the other soldiers first began plotting to murder unarmed Afghans in late 2009, several weeks before the first killing took place. To make the killings appear justified, the soldiers planned to plant weapons near the bodies of the victims, he said.

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