Afghan National Army guards assigned to a combat outpost with Staff Sgt. Robert Bales insisted they spotted one U.S. soldier walking into their camp and one leave on the night the Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier allegedly murdered 16 noncombatants and wounded six more.
One guard said he heard an American soldier laughing as he walked out of their outpost about 2:30 a.m. on the night of the killings.
Each guard said he tried to stop the soldier, but the American kept walking, using an Afghan phrase for “How are you?”
“I was shocked,” said Pvt. Nematullah, the Afghan guard who said he spotted a U.S. soldier walking into his camp about 12:30 a.m. March 11. “Also, I was nervous.”
He and Pvt. Tosh Ali were the first Afghans to testify in Bales’ Article 32 evidence hearing over video teleconference link to Camp Nathan Smith in Kandahar.
The hearing could shape a death-penalty court-martial for Bales, 39, and the Army is going to unusual lengths to gather evidence for the hearing. In coming days, several other Afghans – including ones whom Bales allegedly wounded – are scheduled to testify.
The video link connects a courtroom at Lewis-McChord with the one in Kandahar, and it allows attorneys for the Army and for Bales to interact with witnesses.
Both the prosecution and the defense had attorneys in Kandahar to question the witnesses in person, including Bales’ lead defense attorney, John Henry Browne of Seattle.
Col. Lee Deneke, an Army Reserve judicial officer, oversaw the hearing and interjected several times to clarify details while Nematullah and Toshi Ali spoke.
Deneke sounded frustrated at times as defense attorneys and interpreters tried to discern facts from Afghan witnesses.
The Afghans were consistent in describing the broad details of what they saw on the night of the killings, but some of the details they shared were lost in translation.
Nematullah, for instance, said the soldier walked into Village Stability Platform from the north.
That gibes with the Army’s allegation that Bales attacked two family compounds in the village of Alkozai, about 600 meters north of his base at Belambay, then returned to his post before making his second assault that night in the village of Najiban.
But defense attorneys confused Nematullah in asking him to describe the road that leads to Belambay. They said it runs east to west.
Nematullah agreed, but he insisted that the soldier he saw walked on the road from the north.
Nematullah also gave conflicting testimony about his position that night, saying once that he was on the ground at the gate to Belambay and once that he was in a tower.
He said he told the American to stop, but the American brushed by him. The American used an Afghan term that means “How are you?,” a response that confused the private.
Later, Tosh Ali said he saw an American leave Belambay about 2:30 a.m. Tosh Ali said the soldier was armed and wearing an American uniform.
Tosh Ali also told the American to stop, but the armed man kept walking. Again, the American asked the guard “How are you?” in an Afghan tongue.
Toshi Ali said he hear shots about half an hour after he saw the American leave the post. Najiban, the second village Bales allegedly attacked, is about 1,000 meters from Belambay.
Tosh Ali said the American was laughing as he walked out.
Both Afghan soldiers said the American they saw was wearing body armor, which contradicts previous testimony from U.S. soldiers who apprehended Bales at Belambay without his Kevlar vest.
Bales has been in court all week with four days of testimony gathered from soldiers and criminal investigators at Lewis-McChord. His wife, Kari, has sat behind him each day.
She and supporters have been taking notes. They appeared to smile a little when the Afghan witnesses contradicted themselves.
The two courtrooms are about 7,000 miles apart. Last year, no Afghans except ones on the U.S. payroll as interpreters testified in hearings for Lewis-McChord soldiers convicted of murdering three Afghans in Kandahar during their deployment there in 2010.