Soldier who killed and mutilated Afghan villagers is jailed for life


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A US soldier has been found guilty of killing Afghan villagers for sport and taking fingers and teeth as trophies.

Staff Sgt Calvin Gibbs had claimed his victims were Taliban and placed weapons near their bodies in a bid to prove they had been killed in combat and were not civilians.

The 26-year-old was sentenced to life imprisonment by a US military jury for murder, conspiracy and other charges in a case likely to bolster claims by Afghan leaders that the US army often kills civilians and falsely claims that they are insurgent fighters. Prosecutors said Gibbs led a unit which described itself as "a kill team" that routinely pretended unarmed Afghans had died as a result of military action.

During the seven-day court martial at a base south of Seattle,he admitted cutting the fingers off the bodies of the dead and yanking out a tooth of a victim saying it was "like keeping the antlers of a deer you'd shoot" and he "disassociated" the bodies from being human. Gibbs, from Montana, was the most senior of five soldiers from 5th Stryker Brigade accused of shooting three unarmed civilians in Kandahar Province last year.

An investigation into the actions of the Stryker Brigade revealed hash-smoking while on patrol, the mutilation of the bodies of dead Afghans and the gang-beating of a US soldier who had reported drug use to officers. Several of Gibbs' co-defendants testified against him, saying he devised "scenarios" whereby they could fake combat situations in which civilians died.

Photographs entered in evidence at the trial recall the actions of American prison guards at Abu Ghraib in Iraq in 2003-4 who had themselves posed beside Iraqis who were being mistreated and humiliated. But equally graphic pictures of US soldiers grinning as they posed with the dead bodies of Afghans received limited publicity in the US compared to the notorious pictures from Abu Ghraib.

An army specialist, Jeremy Morlock, serving 24 years for taking part in three killings, said that Gibbs had given him a grenade to kill a teenager in a field in January 2010. The following month he said another civilian was murdered and an AK-47 planted near his body. The motive for the killings was apparently that the soldiers had been expecting to fight the Taliban but were under orders to show restraint and conciliate Afghan villagers. The leader of the Stryker Brigade, Col Harry Tunnell IV, lost his job in 2010 at the start of the investigation. Gibbs insisted that two of the killings were in self-defence and that he had nothing to do with a third. He denied planting weapons near the bodies. His civilian lawyer, Philip Stackhouse, asked for the court to be lenient in its decision on when Gibbs can apply for parole saying that the former soldier "is not the same person he was when he went to Afghanistan".

The military prosecutor, Major Dre Leblanc, argued against the granting of the right to parole saying that Gibbs had said of the Afghans "these people are savages, look at how they live". The five member jury decided that Gibbs would be eligible for parole in eight-and-a-half years.

US generals have claimed a high rate of success in sending "capture or kill teams" to eliminate local Taliban leaders, but Afghan critics say that often those who die are unarmed civilians. Where Taliban are killed, they are frequently replaced by a brother or close relative eager to exact revenge for the killing. In Iraq, a campaign to eliminate those responsible for planting roadside bombs was counter-effective.

A US army study showed that a militant responsible for planting bombs was usually replaced within 24 hours and his successor would be more active to show that he was as effective as his predecessor.