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Military Weighs Verdict on US Afghan 'Kill team' Chief

Andrew Winner

Calvin Gibbs, 26, faces a range of charges including murder, assault and conspiracy over the killings of three Afghans. (Photograph: Peter Millett/AP)

JOINT BASE LEWIS MCCHORD, Washington — A military panel could rule as early as Thursday in the case of the alleged ringleader of US troops who killed Afghan civilians for sport and took body parts as trophies.

Staff Sergeant Calvin Gibbs "betrayed" the American people by leading the "kill team" that committed the grisly murders between January and May 2010, prosecutors said Wednesday as a court-martial neared its climax.

Three members of the rogue army unit have already pleaded guilty in a scandal that has threatened embarrassment for the US military on the scale of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse in Iraq, disclosed in 2004.

On Wednesday Major Robert Stelle dismissed Gibbs's claims that his unit was responding to legitimate attack when they killed the civilians, before removing body parts as trophies and taking photos with the corpses.

"This is a case about betrayal, the ultimate betrayal... Staff Sergeant Gibbs betrayed his folk, he betrayed his unit, and with the flag of his nation emblazoned across his chest, thousand miles from home, he betrayed his nation," Stelle said in a closing argument.

Gibbs, 26, faces life behind bars if convicted on charges including three counts of premeditated murder in southern Afghanistan between January and May last year.

He is accused of setting up the killings, planting weapons on the dead civilians' bodies to make it look like they were fighters, and then removing fingers and teeth to show off to colleagues.

Gibbs's court-martial started last week, and in an unexpected appearance Friday he claimed his unit was engaged in genuine combat -- while admitting that he took fingers and teeth from the corpses.

"In my mind, it was like keeping the antlers off a deer you'd shoot... You have to come to terms with the things you're doing," he said.

But the military prosecutor dismissed those claims during a closing argument lasting over an hour at the Joint Base Lewis/McChord, south of Seattle, home to the 5th Stryker Brigade.

"Selling the engagement as legitimate was part of the plan," said Stelle, calling Gibbs's stories "fundamentally implausible."

Gibbs's lawyer countered by attacking the credibility of Private Jeremy Morlock and two other members of the "kill team," who received lighter sentences by pleading guilty and agreeing to testify against Gibbs.

As well as attacking Morlock's statements, defense attorney Phil Stackhouse spent over two hours pointing out discrepancies in the evidence in an attempt to plant reasonable doubt in the minds of the five-soldier panel.

One of the largest discrepancies revolved around the barrel length of an automatic weapon allegedly "dropped" on a victim to make the killing appear justified.

The prosecution alleges that the AK-47-type gun was stuffed into Gibbs's backpack, but the defense said it was too big to fit in the closed pack, casting doubt on whether Gibbs could have used his pack to conceal the weapon.

Morlock, described as Gibbs's right hand man, testified earlier in the trial that Gibbs placed the weapon near the victim after an alleged killing later that day.

Morlock also said Gibbs had "had a general disdain for Afghans, and called them savages."

Stelle called the idea that Morlock and the other kill team members were willing to plead guilty to murder in an effort to foist blame onto Gibbs as "patently ridiculous."

The court martial is set to resume Thursday, possibly for its last day.

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