Leading independent human rights campaigners in Afghanistan have welcomed the sentencing of a U.S. soldier accused of killing Afghan civilians for sport in 2010, but have called for a deeper probe into alleged "kill teams."
Army Specialist Jeremy Morlock, 22, is the first of five U.S. soldiers charged with staging combat situations to kill unarmed Afghan civilians to be sentenced. At the start of the court-martial hearing on March 23, Morlock testified that "the plan was to kill people." He was subsequently found guilty on three counts of premeditated murder and sentenced to 24 years in prison.
Military Judge Lieutenant General Kwasi Hawks said he intended to sentence Morlock to life in prison with the possibility of parole but was bound by Morlock's plea deal.
Morlock is a key figure in a war-crimes probe that implicates a dozen members of his platoon and has raised some of the most serious criminal allegations stemming from the war in Afghanistan. He was accused of taking a lead role in the killings of three unarmed Afghan men in Kandahar Province in January, February, and May 2010.
The German magazine "Der Spiegel" this week published several photos related to the killings, one showing Morlock crouched grinning over a bloodied corpse as he lifts the dead man's head by the hair for the camera. The expected release of thousands of similar pictures is expected to create fierce resentment in Afghanistan, where the issue of civilian casualties is already the source of a highly charged debate.
The investigation and the publication of the pictures prompted Afghan human rights organizations to call for a thorough investigation of such abuses. "The U.S. government needs to immediately launch comprehensive investigations in all its military units, Special Forces, private security contractors, local mercenaries, and affiliated irregular armed groups in Afghanistan to ensure that no more criminal 'kill teams' exist," the independent human rights watchdog, Afghanistan Rights Monitor (ARM), urged this week.
Speaking to RFE/RL from the Afghan capital, Kabul, ARM director Ajamal Samadi says that Morlock's sentencing was a welcome sign. But Samadi presses Washington to further investigate similar incidents to bring an end to the "criminal immunity" that he says is available to a wide array of Afghan and international forces, armed contractors, and private militias.
"It is extremely difficult to attribute the crimes that take place in Afghanistan to certain military groups. That is the biggest problem," Samadi says. "If you travel to parts of Afghanistan where conflict is more intense, people will tell you all sorts of stories: crimes committed by foreign soldiers, by Afghan forces, [and] by the militias. So we believe the environment is extremely criminalized in Afghanistan in a way. All sorts of crimes are happening and the civilians are paying a very, very high price in this conflict."
Afghan observers say the sentence is likely to raise Afghan hopes for answers to their calls for accountability of all armed actors in their country.
Mohammad Iqbal Azizi, the governor of Laghman Province, said the United States’ handling of the scandal so far has sent a “responsible message” to Afghans.
"Afghans know the level of responsibility. When the pictures were [published] in the magazine, at the same time there were announcements that the soldiers who committed these kinds of mistakes be tried and prosecuted," Azizi said.
"So it is giving a responsible message to the Afghan people. That's why Afghan people are not reacting in a hostile manner."
Azizi made the comments in a joint Pentagon briefing for reporters via video conference with U.S. Lieutenant Colonel John Walker, the Mehtar Lam Provincial Reconstruction Team commander.
Walker said he has not seen any reprisals against U.S. forces in light of the scandal and doesn’t expect any in his unit.
On March 23, military Judge Hawks also ruled that Morlock will be eligible for parole in about seven years. Morlock will be dishonorably discharged from the army.
Earlier, Morlock read a statement apologizing to the victims' families and the "people of Afghanistan," adding, "I've spent a lot of time reflecting on how I lost my moral compass."
Abdul Rahman Hotaki, the head of Afghan Organization of Human Rights and Environmental Protection, says that Morlock's sentence is not equal to his confessed crime of killing unarmed civilians. Nevertheless, he says, it shows Afghans that their blood is not cheap and that abuses committed by international forces are being addressed.
"We hope that people who have committed human rights abuses by torturing prisoners in Bagram or have killed and tortured people in other provinces will be similarly brought into international and American courts," Hotaki says. "This will serve as a lesson for forces still operating in the theater."
Hotaki says that further efforts to address abuses by international forces could raise the esteem of Afghans and help bridge a widening gulf with the administration in Kabul.
Afghan presidential spokesman Wahid Omar has offered similar sentiments. Speaking to RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan after "Der Spiegel" unveiled the photos, he also emphasized the need for continued greater accountability on the part of international troops.
"If the United States of America wants to be friendly with Afghan people and government and wants to have a presence in this country," Omar says, "then they should put an end to operations which result in civilian casualties."