US Muslim who killed fellow soldiers sentenced to death

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The Independent US

An American Muslim is facing the prospect of being the first US soldier to be executed since the early Sixties after a military jury sentenced him to death for an attack that killed two of his colleagues. The attack - which took place in the opening days of the war in Iraq - was apparently fuelled by the soldier's opposition to the war.

An American Muslim is facing the prospect of being the first US soldier to be executed since the early Sixties after a military jury sentenced him to death for an attack that killed two of his colleagues. The attack - which took place in the opening days of the war in Iraq - was apparently fuelled by the soldier's opposition to the war.

A 15-member military jury at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, sentenced Sgt Hasan Akbar to death for an attack he carried out with a rifle and a grenade against fellow soldiers at a temporary US base in northern Kuwait in spring 2003. In addition to the two deaths, 14 other soldiers were wounded in the attack, which prosecutors alleged was driven by religious extremism.

Just hours before the court's decision on Thursday evening, Akbar, 34, had made a barely audible apology, saying: "I want to apologise for the attack that occurred. I felt that my life was in jeopardy, and I had no other options. I also want to ask you for forgiveness."

His words ultimately did nothing to sway the jury, which found him guilty of premeditated murder. After seven hours of deliberation, the jury opted not to sentence him to life imprisonment as the defence had urged, and instead decided that Akbar should be executed by lethal injection.

It is far from clear whether Akbar, of the US Army's 101st Airborne Division, will actually be put to death. The sentence will be reviewed by a commanding officer and automatically appealed against. Even if the appeal fails, Akbar's lawyers have a series of other options and could ask the US Supreme Court to intervene.

While Akbar's defence team argued that he was too mentally ill to have planned in advance the attack at Camp Pennsylvania, they never disputed that it was he who carried out the night-time assault that led to the deaths of Captain Chris Seifert, 27, and 40-year-old Air Force Major Gregory Stone.

A psychiatrist called by the defence said that while Akbar was legally sane and understood the consequences of the attack, he suffered from paranoia and schizophrenia. His father also said that his son had complained about religious and racial harassment before the attack.

Major David Coombs, for the defence, told jurors a sentence of life without parole would allow Akbar to be treated for mental illness and possibly rehabilitated. "Death is an absolute punishment, a punishment of last resort," he said.

But prosecutors said Akbar was driven by extremism and anger and was concerned that US soldiers would be killing his fellow Muslims. They quoted a diary entry from 1997 in which Akbar wrote: "My life will not be complete unless America is destroyed." Lt- Col Michael Mulligan, for the prosecution, said: "He is a hate-filled, ideologically driven murderer." Major Stone's fiancée, Tammie Eslinger, said after the hearing: "Hasan Akbar has robbed me of so many things. He stole my love, my family, my dreams and my future. But he could never steal my spirit."

Captain Seifert's widow, Theresa, said she was satisfied with the military justice system. She called Akbar "a nonentity to me". She added: "We are satisfied with the verdict and believe the panel has sent forth the appropriate sentence."

Akbar is the first American since the Vietnam War era to be prosecuted on charges of murdering a fellow soldier during wartime. He will join five others on the military's death row at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. *A string of car bombs has killed at least 24 people in Iraq. Eighty-nine people, mostly police and National Guardsmen, were also wounded.

A tape by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Al-Qa'ida's leader in Iraq, purportedly made last month, was also released. The Jordanian militant promised more suicide attacks to unsettle the new Iraqi government.

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