<p>Specialist Michael Wagnon is seen in this undated handout photo. REUTERS/U.S. Army/Handout</p>

Trial ordered for fifth U.S. soldier charged in Afghan murders

U.S. News

Laura L. Myers

SEATTLE (Reuters) - A general court-martial has been ordered for the last of five U.S. soldiers charged with murdering unarmed Afghan civilians as part of a rogue combat platoon last year, the Army said on Monday.

Army Specialist Michael Wagnon, 30, is the oldest of the five murder suspects referred for trial in connection with the most serious prosecution of alleged U.S. military atrocities in Afghanistan since the war began there in late 2001.

Each of the five men faces a possible maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted.

Seven others assigned to what was then the 5th Stryker Brigade were charged with lesser offenses in the case, which began as a probe of hashish use by troops stationed in the Afghan province of Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold.

The case has gained a measure of notoriety due to the gruesome nature of the allegations. Several defendants are accused of collecting severed fingers from Afghan corpses as war trophies.

But thousands of graphic photos seized as evidence, some said to show soldiers posed with Afghan bodies, remain the most potentially explosive element of the case.

The existence of such photos has drawn comparisons with pictures of Iraqi prisoners taken by U.S. military personnel at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2004. The Army has taken pains to keep the Stryker Brigade photos sealed.

Wagnon’s civilian defense lawyer, Colby Vokey, said his client is innocent and that the prosecution’s case was sorely lacking in physical and forensic evidence.

“He’s done nothing wrong,” Vokey said. “It’s a travesty they’re sending such a good soldier to trial with so little evidence.”

Three of the 11 other soldiers charged in the investigation have pleaded guilty in court-martial proceedings to date.

Army medic Robert Stevens was sentenced on December 1 to nine months in prison and demoted in rank but allowed to remain in the military after admitting to shooting at unarmed villagers and agreeing to testify against his co-defendants.

Corporal Emmitt Quintal was sentenced on January 5 to three months hard labor and discharged for keeping war souvenir photos of casualties, beating a fellow platoon member and smoking hash. Private Ashton Moore received a cut in pay and rank on January 28 after pleading guilty to smoking hash.

Wagnon is charged with one count of premeditated murder stemming from the slaying of an Afghan farmer whose death, according to prosecutors, was staged to look like a legitimate combat casualty. He also is charged conspiracy to commit murder, with assaulting innocent Afghans by shooting at them, and with conspiracy to commit assault.

A fifth charge of possessing a skull taken from a human corpse was dropped after it became apparent that the bone in question came from a camel. Prosecutors also have dismissed a charge of trying to obstruct the investigation.

No trial date has yet been set.