By Bill Rigby
SEATTLE (Reuters) - A U.S. Army soldier accused of gunning down 16 Afghan villagers in a drunken rampage will face the military version of a preliminary hearing on Monday to determine if there is sufficient evidence to send him to a court martial.
U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, a decorated veteran of four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan who could face the death penalty if convicted, is accused of walking off his base under cover of darkness and opening fire on civilians in their homes in at least two villages in March.
The shooting of mostly women and children in Afghanistan's Kandahar province marked the worst civilian slaughter by U.S. forces since the Vietnam War and eroded already strained U.S.-Afghan ties after over a decade of conflict in the country.
Bales, 38, faces 16 counts of premeditated murder and six counts of attempted murder, as well as charges of assault and wrongfully possessing and using steroids and alcohol while deployed.
Premeditated murder is a capital offense under the U.S. military justice code, so Bales could face the death penalty if convicted or a mandatory minimum sentence of life imprisonment with eligibility for parole.
The two-week hearing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, where Bales' infantry regiment was based, is designed to be a "thorough and impartial investigation" of the facts, said Alain Polynice, an Army spokesman.
Proceedings will feature live video testimony from witnesses in Afghanistan, including villagers and Afghan soldiers.
Bales, who was moved to the confinement center at Lewis-McChord last month after being held at a military prison in Kansas since March, will be present at the hearing but was not expected to answer questions.
Bales' civilian lawyer, John Henry Browne, has cast doubt on the Army's version of events, suggesting that Bales may not have acted alone, and may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Browne told Reuters last month that he and an Army prosecutor planned to question five to 15 Afghan villagers and military personnel as key witnesses from Kandahar Air Field. He did not respond to requests for comments immediately preceding the hearing.
Bales will be represented by two military defense counselors, Major Gregory Malson and Captain Matthew Aeisi, alongside Browne. Malson represented Army Sergeant William Kreutzer, who was sentenced to life in prison three years ago for killing an officer and wounding 18 U.S. soldiers in a 1995 shooting spree.
The Army's investigating officer is Colonel Lee Deneke, an Army reservist and assistant U.S. attorney in Tennessee with some experience in military capital punishment cases.
Separately, Bales is also subject to a review of his mental fitness to stand trial, often referred to as a "sanity board." The status of that review has not been disclosed by the Army.
The March shooting highlighted discipline problems among U.S. soldiers from Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma, which was also the home base of five enlisted men from the former 5th Stryker Brigade charged with premeditated murder in connection with three killings of unarmed Afghan civilians in 2010.
Four of the men were convicted or pleaded guilty in court-martial proceedings to murder or manslaughter charges and were sentenced to prison. Charges against the fifth were dropped.
The Army has since increased supervision at the base, without admitting any problems. In August, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta directed a panel of experts to assess whether reforms were needed in the way the military justice system handles crimes committed by U.S. forces against civilians in combat zones.
(Additional reporting by Laura L. Myers; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh)
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