US soldier faces up to 24 years in jail over 'Afghan Abu Ghraib'

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One of the five US soldiers accused of being part of a "kill team" which plotted to take the lives of unarmed civilians to help pass the time during a deployment in Afghanistan pleaded guilty last night to three counts of premeditated murder.

Jeremy Morlock, a 23-year-old Army Specialist, apologised for his role in one of the worst atrocities committed since US troops began their occupation the country almost a decade ago. He told the court: "I lost my moral compass."

Speaking under oath, he implicated four co-defendants in the crimes, which took place last year, and confirmed that he would testify against them as part of a plea bargain that will likely result in a maximum sentence of 24 years. "I knew what I was doing was wrong," said Morlock, who comes from Sarah Palin's home town of Wasilla, Alaska. "The plan was to kill people." He later read a statement apologising to the victims and their families, admitting that the killings were staged so as to look like they occurred in combat situations.

The court martial, which is taking place in Washington State, comes days after the German magazine Der Spiegel published several photos related to the murders. One of them showed a grinning Morlock crouched over a bloodied corpse, lifting the dead man's head by the hair for the camera.

Revulsion over the images, which recalled those at the centre of the Abu Ghraib torture scandal in Iraq, has drawn international attention to the behaviour of Morlock's unit, the 5th Stryker Brigade, which served in Kandahar.

An investigation has turned up allegations that troops regularly posed with dead Afghans as if they were hunting trophies, and many were in the habit of cutting off their fingers, which they would then show to fellow soldiers to prove that they had completed a "kill."

Another seven members of the brigade are being court martialled on charges ranging from assault to illicit drug abuse.