WASHINGTON - The US Army holds its first hearing Monday in a grisly war crimes case that charges five soldiers with killing Afghan civilians for sport and plotting a cover-up.
Authorities say the troops opened fire on the Afghan civilians in unprovoked assaults over several months in Afghanistan's southern Kandahar province, with some of the soldiers accused of mutilating corpses and removing bones.
The case carries potentially explosive ramifications for the war effort as US-led forces try to win the trust of local Afghans and push back Taliban insurgents in the pivotal Kandahar battlefield.
Monday's hearing focuses on Specialist Jeremy Morlock, 22, of Wasila, Alaska, who faces charges of premeditated murder in the deaths of three Afghans killed between January and May this year.
Morlock is one of five soldiers charged with murder in the case, while seven others are accused of trying to block the investigation, using hashish and severely beating a comrade in retaliation for blowing the whistle.
The soldiers were deployed with Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment, from the 2nd Infantry Division's Stryker brigade, at Forward Operating Base Ramrod.
The military hearing at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state will determine if there is sufficient evidence to proceed to trial, and more hearings are expected in coming weeks for the other defendants.
Morlock and several of the men also are charged with punching and kicking a fellow soldier to stifle an investigation into hashish use.
Describing the assault on the soldier, the charge sheets accuse Morlock of "threatening to kill him if he spoke about hashish use with the platoon command and law enforcement authorities," and that he showed him "fingers removed from a corpse."
Officials had told AFP in May that the whistle blower, whose identity has been kept secret, was badly battered, with one source saying he was "beaten within an inch of his life."
The motive and many details of the alleged crimes remain unclear, and authorities have yet to answer allegations that warnings of atrocities were ignored for months.
The father of one of the accused, Specialist Adam Winfield, has told US media that his son warned him via Facebook that his unit had killed an Afghan civilian for no reason and was plotting to commit more murders.
The father, Christopher Winfield, alleges he phoned military authorities and even the office of a US senator, Bill Nelson of Florida, to try to pass on his son's information.
His son, Adam, also faces murder charges.
US officials acknowledge they are concerned about the fallout from the case, which threatens to undermine efforts by the American military to avoid civilian casualties and secure the confidence of wary Afghans.
The allegations have yet to be proven but are "serious nonetheless," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said earlier this month.
Even if the accusations are found to be false, the case "is unhelpful," Morrell said.
"The people in that area who are impacted by these alleged incidents will think differently of us as a result of that."
But he said the charges represented "an aberration" for an American force of nearly 100,000 in Afghanistan.
The charge sheets include macabre allegations of dismembering corpses, though authorities have not specified if the bones were taken from the slain civilians.
Prosecutors allege Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs kept finger bones, leg bones and a tooth from Afghan corpses.
Another soldier, Specialist Michael Wagnon, is charged with taking a skull. Several of the troops are charged with taking photos of corpses and one soldier is accused of stabbing a dead Afghan.
Troops from the 5th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, named after its distinctive armored vehicles, suffered heavy casualties soon after deploying to Kandahar province in the summer of 2009.
Military leaders at Stryker brigade's home at Joint Base Lewis-McChord have come under scrutiny about how they have handled returning troops plagued by combat trauma.
In August, after the brigade had returned from Afghanistan, one soldier went AWOL and showed up heavily armed -- with 1,000 rounds of ammunition -- at a hotel in Salt Lake City, Utah.
The soldier, Specialist Brandon Barrett, 28, died in a shootout with police.