US soldier argues self defense in court-martial over Afghan civilian killing

A US Army Special Forces soldier facing court-martial proceedings over the killing of an Afghan civilian in March 2008 has admitted to killing the man but argued during opening statements Feb. 19 that the act was committed in self defense. Master Sgt. Robert Newell of the 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) was arraigned and charged with killing the unidentified Afghan and mutilating the corpse by cutting off an ear. Military prosecutors allege that the killing was premeditated, and that the civilian posed no threat to Newell.

An Afghan who served as a translator to Newell’s Special Forces team testified that the victim had his hands in his pockets while being questioned and subsequently shot by Newell, and that the victim’s hands remained in his pockets after the killing. According to defense lawyers, Newell believed the unidentified Afghan to be a Taliban insurgent who posed a threat to him. Newell is being charged with murder and related offenses under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

In 2007, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released documents describing alleged crimes committed by US soldiers against civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, but showing that troops believed they were following the law in most instances. The materials were made available in conjunction with a lawsuit the ACLU filed to compel the US military to release all documents relating to the deaths of civilians caused by US troops since January 2005. In 2006, court-martial proceedings against a group of US soldiers implicated in the abuse of detainees at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan ended with only one conviction. Three other soldiers pleaded guilty to abusing prisoners at Bagram, two others pleaded guilty at the court-martial and five were acquitted. The Army dropped the charges against three others. (Jurist, Feb. 20)

See our last posts on Afghanistan and civilian casualties.