Washington: A US soldier was sentenced to nine months in prison after pleading guilty to shooting at Afghan civilians.
Staff Sergeant Robert Stevens, 25, also was demoted to the rank of private but was spared discharge from the military under the sentence handed down in the first court martial linked to a rogue Army unit alleged to have killed Afghans for sport.
Stevens pleaded guilty to four of the five charges against him, including shooting "in the direction of" men he knew to be civilians rather than enemy fighters.
He also admitted to wrongly having a grenade that he claims Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs, the alleged ringleader of the rogue soldiers, gave him near the end of last year.
As part of the plea agreement, Stevens will also now testify against other soldiers accused of more grisly crimes in Afghanistan.
A dozen soldiers face charges related to attacks on Afghan civilians earlier this year, including three murders, in which victims` bodies were alleged to have been mutilated.
All belong to the Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Division`s Stryker brigade at Forward Operating Base Ramrod.
Stevens, who is not accused of murder, described the March shooting under questioning by the judge, Lieutenant Colonel Kwasi Hawks.
Stevens said that, while on patrol, the soldiers saw Afghan men in a field. "I knew they weren`t a threat," he said, adding that the men were walking around in the open, not hiding from the soldiers.
But then Gibbs told Stevens and the other soldiers to prepare to fire, saying one of the men had a rocket-propelled grenade, he said. Stevens fired, but says he intentionally missed by a wide margin.
"Sergeant Gibbs then mentioned that we needed to work on our accuracy," Stevens testified. He said he later lied to Army investigators about the incident, claiming that one of the Afghans had a rocket-propelled grenade, as stated by Gibbs.
"It sounds like you made a real effort to not hit them," Hawks said.
The outcome of Stevens` court martial could have a significant impact on the cases of the other accused soldiers, said Lieutenant Colonel David Frakt, a former military prosecutor.
"If the person is convicted and hammered, that would certainly incentivize the other accused to potentially try to work out a plea bargain," said Frakt, who serves in the Air Force reserves.
But Frakt noted that it is also an advantage to other defendants that Stevens` trial is happening first. "It gives them a good preview of the government`s case against them."