By Bill Rigby
TACOMA, Washington (Reuters) - Two wounded survivors of a shooting rampage that killed 16 Afghan villagers are set to recount the experience on Friday at a U.S. military hearing to decide if a decorated soldier accused of murder in the case will face a court martial.
Military prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, accusing him of killing the villagers - mostly women and children - when he ventured out of his remote camp on two revenge-fueled forays over a five-hour period in March.
The survivors, along with four relatives of those killed in the rampage, will appear via video-link from Kandahar Air Field to an overnight hearing at a U.S. Army base in Washington state, marking the first time Afghan witnesses will testify under oath about what transpired that night.
The testimony could provide important clues about the nature of the attack, including whether Bales acted alone. Some villagers told reporters shortly after the attacks that more than one U.S. soldier was involved, but there have been no sworn statements to that effect made publicly.
U.S. prosecutors say that a coherent and lucid Bales left his base twice in the early hours of March 11, and murdered the 16 villagers alone and with "chilling premeditation."
They have presented physical evidence to tie Bales to the crime scene, with a forensic investigator saying a sample of blood on Bales' clothes matched a swab taken in one of the compounds where the shooting occurred.
Bales' lawyers have not set out an alternative theory, but have pointed up inconsistencies in testimony and highlighted incidents before the shooting where Bales lost his temper easily or appeared unbalanced, possibly setting up an argument that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
The shootings in Afghanistan's Kandahar province marked the worst case of civilian slaughter blamed on an individual U.S. soldier since the Vietnam War and damaged already strained U.S.-Afghan relations.
Key testimony scheduled for Friday evening - Saturday morning in Kandahar - will come from villager Haji Mohamed Naim, who was wounded but survived the attack on his family's compound in the village of Alkozai, a short walk from the U.S. base.
Bales, a veteran of four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, 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.
Gathering evidence and witness statements was complicated by the speedy burial of victims, the inability of U.S. investigators to access the crime scenes for three weeks after the violence for fears of revenge attacks, and the dispersal of possible witnesses after treatment at a Kandahar hospital.
Bales' lead civil defense attorney John Henry Browne, who is in Kandahar to question the witnesses, complained early in the investigation that his team was denied access to villagers injured in the attacks.
Also scheduled to appear on Friday evening is Tosh Ali, a member of the Afghan National Army stationed at Camp Belambay, who one previous witness said told him that two U.S. soldiers were seen entering the base in the early hours of March 11, apparently contradicting U.S. prosecutors' version of events.
(Reporting by Bill Rigby; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Jackie Frank)