Lawyer says US blocks investigation of Afghan massacre

SEATTLE Sat Mar 31, 2012 3:48am IST

Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, (R) 1st platoon sergeant, Blackhorse Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, is seen during an exercise at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California, in this August 23, 2011 DVIDS handout photo. REUTERS/Department of Defense/Spc. Ryan Hallock/Handout

Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, (R) 1st platoon sergeant, Blackhorse Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, is seen during an exercise at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California, in this August 23, 2011 DVIDS handout photo.

Credit: Reuters/Department of Defense/Spc. Ryan Hallock/Handout

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SEATTLE (Reuters) - The lawyer defending the U.S. soldier accused of murdering 17 Afghan civilians claims U.S. authorities are blocking his ability to investigate the incident.

John Henry Browne, the lawyer for Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, said U.S. forces in Afghanistan have prevented his team from interviewing injured civilians at a hospital in Kandahar, and are allowing other potential witnesses to scatter, making it difficult to track them down.

"My gut is the reason is they don't have much of a case," said Browne at a press conference at his downtown Seattle office on Friday.

Bales was formally charged last week with the murders of eight adults and nine children in a pre-dawn shooting rampage in southern Afghanistan on March 11, which further eroded U.S.-Afghan relations already strained by a decade of war.

He could face the death penalty if convicted.

No date has been set for a trial, but U.S. military prosecutors are putting together their case while Browne is preparing his defense.

Browne said he has a team of investigators in Afghanistan now, but they are receiving little cooperation from military prosecutors who filed the charges.

"We are facing an almost complete information blackout from the government, which is having a devastating effect on our ability to investigate the charges preferred against our client," he said in a statement released earlier on Friday.

A reliable account of the events of the night of the massacre has not yet emerged. A recent report indicated Afghan villagers doubt Bales acted alone. Other reports suggest Bales left his base twice during the night.

"I don't believe that's the case, but we can't say that for sure," Browne said on Friday.

Browne said his investigators had spoken to U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan but had not managed to contact any witnesses.

"When we tried to interview the injured civilians being treated at Kandahar Hospital we were denied access and told to coordinate with the prosecution team," Browne said in the earlier statement.

"The next day the prosecution team interviewed the civilians i njured. We found out shortly after the prosecution interviews of the injured civilians that the civilians were all released from the hospital and there was no contact information for them." That means potential witnesses will scatter and could prove unreachable, Browne said.

Browne said it was too early to say whether his defense would rely on post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, or other psychiatric problems Bale may have suffered as a defense against the charges.

The next step in the case is for Bales - who is being held at a military detention center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas - to undergo a mental assessment by Army doctors independent of both the prosecution and defense, to determine if he is fit to stand trial, known as a "sanity board" in the Army. That could take several months, Browne said.

After that has occurred, the military justice system requires a preliminary hearing, known as an "Article 32" hearing, to establish whether there is a strong enough case to proceed to a court martial.

(Reporting By Bill Rigby; Editing by Todd Eastham and Paul Simao)

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