In Afghan killings, victim No. 17 remains unknown

A man points to the spot where he says a family was shot in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, on March 11

Story highlights

  • Afghans say U.S. officials paid $860,000 to the families of the dead and wounded
  • Investigators believe the gunman made two trips off his base during the massacre
  • A NATO spokesman says the money is compensation for the victims
  • U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales could face the death penalty if convicted

As the U.S. military pursues charges against the Army sergeant accused of killing Afghan civilians in what commanders say was a freelance rampage, a new question has arisen: Who was victim No. 17?

Staff Sgt. Robert Bales has been charged with 17 counts of murder "with premeditation" in the March 11 slayings in the Panjwai district of Afghanistan's Kandahar Province. But Afghan authorities have said there were 16 people killed in the Panjwai killings.

Sunday, two Afghan provincial council members said the United States has paid the victims' families a total of $860,000 -- $10,000 for each of the six wounded survivors, and $50,000 apiece for the 16 dead.

Afghan government officials in Kabul have said they have no record of another death. A U.S. official confirmed that a payment had been made on Saturday -- but the official, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the situation, said he could not comment on the figure involved.

The discrepancy has persisted since Friday, when the charge sheet on Bales listed four women among 17 victims, while initial U.S. and Afghan reports listed three women among 16 dead.

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A NATO spokesman, Col. Gary Kolb, said Friday only that investigators assigned to the case felt they had evidence to charge Bales with 17 counts of murder.

Authorities say Bales left his remote outpost before dawn on March 11 and went house-to-house, gunning down villagers in two villages near the U.S. base. They have said that he acted alone, leaving the outpost in the dead of night and turning himself in to his comrades when he returned.

The American official who handed over the money to the families said the payments were not compensation, but the U.S. government offering to help the victims and their families, Kandahar provincial council member Haji Nyamat Khan said. But Kolb said the money was compensation for the families.

It was not immediately clear if the word used to describe the payment had legal significance in Afghanistan, where "blood money" can replace a trial or punishment of a killer.

Afghans are insisting that Bales be returned to Afghanistan to face trial, with villagers and lawmakers questioning the U.S. military's account of what happened. But a military official in Afghanistan has said that Bales will be tried in the United States.

Khan, the local official, said the money was paid in Afghan currency and handed over in Kandahar city. He did not name the American official involved in the meeting.

While the identity of the 17th victim remained unknown Sunday, a U.S. official did disclose a new detail of the case Sunday. The official, who would not speak on the record because the investigation is ongoing, told CNN that investigators now believe Bales committed the shootings during two separate trips out of the American compound.

"We believe the shooter went to one village, came back and went to a second village," the official said, based on factors including interviews and the overall investigation.

Bales could face the death penalty if convicted of any of the murder counts against him. He is being held at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, after being flown out of Afghanistan a few days after the killings.

It is not clear whether he will now face a military procedure known as an Article 32 hearing, at which military authorities would determine whether to proceed with charges against him, or whether he will go before a group of experts to determine whether his mental health may be a factor in his defense.

If and when the case comes to trial, Bales' lawyer, John Henry Browne, said, it is going to be "extremely difficult" for the prosecution.

"They have no murder scene, no forensics," the lawyer said Thursday night outside his Seattle office. "I'm going to make them prove every claim."

Military law experts acknowledge that proving the case may be difficult, especially given that there are no autopsies to help prove the cause of death -- in part because those killed were buried quickly, in accordance with Islamic tradition -- and difficulty in getting witnesses to testify.

But Gary Solis, a former U.S. Marine Corps lawyer and current Georgetown professor, told CNN that any bullet rounds recovered from the scene could be matched with Bales' weapon -- assuming it was "immediately seized" -- which would serve as "powerful evidence for the government."

The dead have been identified as Mohammad Dawood Abdullah, Khudaidad Mohmmad Jama, Nazar Mohammad Taj Mohammad, Payendo, Robina, Sahtarina Sultan Mohammad, Zuhra Abdul Hameed, Nazia Doost Mohammad, Mosooma Mohammad Wazir, Farida Mohammad Wazir, Palwasha Mohammad Wazir, Nabia Mohammad Wazir, Asmatullah Mohammad Wazir, Faizullah Mohammad Wazir, Esa Mohammad Mohammad Husain, and Akhtar Mohammad Murad Ali.

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