US sergeant goes on trial for murder of Iraqis

14th April 2009, Comments 0 comments

Hatley is charged with premeditated murder, conspiracy to commit premeditated murder and obstruction of justice, according to an army statement in Germany.

Vilseck, Germany -- US Master Sergeant John E. Hatley went on trial in a court martial Monday on murder charges for what a prosecutor termed "execution-style" shootings of prisoners in Iraq.

Hatley, 40, is charged with premeditated murder, conspiracy to commit premeditated murder and obstruction of justice, according to an army statement.

He is the most senior of three US non-commissioned officers to be tried for killing four detainees who prosecutors and co-defendants have said were bound, blindfolded and shot in the head.

The murders were allegedly committed in March or April 2007 in or near southwest Baghdad. An exact date and location have not been determined and the bodies, which witnesses said were dumped into a canal, have never been found.

Two other soldiers -- Sergeant Michael Leahy, a medic, and Sergeant First Class Joseph P. Mayo -- have been convicted and sentenced to life and 35 years in prison, respectively, with the possibility of parole.

Army Captain John Riesenberg, the prosecutor at Mayo's trial, charged the prisoners had been shot in the back of the head "execution style."

But Hatley's lawyer David Court told AFP last week his client would plead not guilty and added: "The government has no evidence, they just have witness testimony."

According to testimony from Mayo's trial, at which he pleaded guilty, all three sergeants shot the detainees with nine-millimetre pistols.

Mayo, 27, told the court he had wondered if it was "the right thing" to do but nonetheless fired because "I just wanted to take care of my soldiers."

The prisoners had been seized with assault rifles and a duffel bag full of ammunition, Mayo testified, and two sniper rifles were found nearby.

The US unit, which belonged to the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment, was still coming to terms with a fatal sniper attack on another sergeant a few weeks earlier.

Mayo testified that Hatley, who led the patrol, had not forced either himself or Leahy to fire.

They were stationed at a combat outpost in West Rashid, one of the most violent Baghdad neighbourhoods at the time, and subjected to repeated attacks.

Rules of engagement often meant setting prisoners free however, which bred "frustration and fear" according to Captain David Nelson-Fischer, a witness at Mayo's trial.

Nelson-Fischer also said in a statement read by a defence lawyer that US troops were unprepared for the explosive situation in which fighters from the Mahdi Army, a Shiite paramilitary group, were driving Sunnis from the area.

Hatley now serves with the 172nd Infantry Brigade in southern Germany, and faces trial at the Rose Barracks Courthouse, near the town of Vilseck.

He has not been restricted to his base in Schweinfurt, but has been barred from visiting the United States since the army's investigation began.


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