Polish troops cleared in Afghan civilians' deaths

AP News
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Posted: Jun 01, 2011 10:16 AM
Polish troops cleared in Afghan civilians' deaths

A military court on Wednesday acquitted seven Polish soldiers in the killing of Afghan civilians in a 2007 attack in which they opened mortar and machine-gun fire on a village in Afghanistan.

Prosecutors had charged them with war crimes in the first such case in Poland, but a five-judge panel ruled there was not enough evidence to support those charges.

The defendants had argued that the casualties caused by the mortar and machine-gun attack on the Afghan village of Nangarkhel on Aug. 16 were accidental. They said they had been targeting Taliban extremists and that the civilians were killed by mistake in the confusion of war.

The defense made the case that it can sometimes be hard for soldiers to distinguish between civilians and extremists in Afghanistan, where 2,600 Poles serve in the NATO-led mission.

Six Afghan civilians, including three children, were killed on the spot, while two other civilians died later in a hospital. Three others were wounded in that attack.

The war crimes charges shocked many people in Poland, where soldiers are held in high regard. At the time, Polish authorities brought the three wounded Afghans to Poland for free medical treatment.

The presiding judge, Col. Miroslaw Jaroszewski, said that there was a lack of evidence that the soldiers intended to harm civilians, and that Polish law therefore required a presumption of innocence. He also said there was some evidence that the soldiers were equipped with faulty military equipment that prevented them from accurately aiming their mortar attacks.

"You can't rule out that the ammunition was defective," he said.

When the verdict was read out, the defendants _ all but one of them in uniform _ smiled and shook hands with each other and their lawyers.

One of the defendants, warrant officer Andrzej Osiecki, expressed relief, saying "I am pleased with the court verdict. I even feel euphoria now."

Defense Minister Bogdan Klich and Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski said they were happy with the acquittals.

"Today the court defended the honor of Poland's soldiers," Klich said.

Prosecutors had sought prison sentences ranging from five to 12 years for the soldiers. They criticized the court's verdict, saying they believed there was sufficient evidence of war crimes. However, they said they have not yet decided whether to appeal the verdict.