Army sniper weeps on stand in Iraq

February 9, 2008 6:12:48 PM PST
A weeping Army soldier said Saturday at his murder trial that he can't remember firing the gun that killed an Iraqi civilian who had stumbled upon the hiding place where he and five other snipers were sleeping. Sgt. Evan Vela and several of his fellow snipers described the confused scene and their own exhaustion in the May shooting. Tears rolled down Vela's cheeks as he said in a hushed voice that he could not recall the exact moment he killed Genei Nasir al-Janabi.

"I don't remember pulling the trigger. I don't remember the sound of the shot," Vela said. "It took me a few seconds to realize that the shot came from my pistol."

The defense rested Saturday in the court-martial at Camp Victory in Baghdad. Vela is charged with murdering the civilian and planting an AK-47 automatic rifle on his body to make him look like an insurgent.

Vela and the other snipers testified that they were confused and exhausted after more than two days of trekking through rough terrain near Iskandariyah, a mostly Sunni Arab city 30 miles south of Baghdad.

They waded all night through swamps and canals, enduring such high temperatures that they were giving each other IVs to remain hydrated, they recounted. They had slept less than five hours in a 72-hour period.

On the morning of May 11, the six Army soldiers had gone to sleep inside their "hide" - a place where snipers can set up and observe targets without being seen. Then al-Janabi surprised them, they said.

After al-Janabi's son had come looking for his father and was then released by the snipers, Vela said, he heard the order to "shoot" given by Sgt. Michael A. Hensley.

Hensley, who was a staff sergeant at the time of the killing but was later demoted to sergeant, testified Friday that he ordered the man to lie on the ground and was searching him when he saw "military-aged men" who he thought were carrying weapons about 100 yards away.

Al-Janabi began yelling, Hensley said, and he ordered Vela to kill the man. That was the only way to ensure the safety of his men in hostile territory, Hensley testified.

Some soldiers corroborated the accounts of Vela and Hensley; others presented scenarios that did not match. Jorge G. Sandoval Jr., who was a specialist at the time but had his rank reduced to private as part of his sentencing, said he saw no military-age men nearby, which contrasted with what Hensley recounted.

James Culp, Vela's attorney, called two medical experts Saturday to support his claim that Vela was so sleep deprived that he acted automatically after hearing an order to shoot from his commanding officer. They said he later lied about the events in part because he suffers from post traumatic stress syndrome.

Vela testified that after he shot al-Janabi, he tried to shoot him again because "he was convulsing on the ground and I thought he might be suffering."

"I just didn't want him to suffer. It was something I've never seen and I got a bit scared," Vela said.

The second shot missed the man.

Dr. Rosemary Carr Malone said that after examining Vela for 20 hours, she concluded he suffered from post traumatic stress disorder "to a reasonable degree of medical certainty."

Because of that, he immediately complied when military investigators allegedly told Vela in late June that he would not see his family again if he didn't tell them what they wanted hear, Culp said.

Culp also asked why the investigators did not record the interrogation or take notes, but instead relied on one of the two interrogators to write notes of Vela's statement into a computer.

Another defense witness, Dr. Dimitry Fomin, an Army lieutenant colonel and neurologist and specialist on sleep disorders, testified that severe sleep deprivation, such as that the snipers were enduring, caused deterioration of the reflexes and judgment.

Vela underwent sleep deprivation medical exams in Germany during the last week of January. Fomin said Vela exhibited the normal signs of a person not allowed to rest during a long period.

Hensley and Sandoval were acquitted of murder in al-Janabi's death and two other slayings, but they were convicted of planting evidence.

In addition to the rank reductions, Sandoval was sentenced to five months in prison and his pay was withheld. Hensley was sentenced to 135 days confinement and received a letter of reprimand.

Vela testified at Hensley's court-martial in late September, under a deal that bars his account of events from being used against him in this trial.

The soldiers were assigned to the 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, based at Fort Richardson, Alaska.

Also Saturday, the U.S. military announced that five American soldiers were killed in two roadside bombings the day before. Four died in Baghdad and one in the northern Tamim province. At least 3,958 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

In the city of Baqouba northeast of Baghdad, hundreds of U.S.-backed Sunni tribesman shut their offices and rallied in the streets. They demanded the resignation of a provincial police chief they accuse of sectarian bias.

The demonstration was organized by local Sunni fighters who left the insurgency to work with the Americans in ousting al-Qaida and other militants from their hometowns.

The men, whose patrols are credited with tamping down violence in their neighborhoods, have grown frustrated with the province's Shiite-dominated government. Some have been denied jobs in the Iraqi security forces, and they accuse Gen. Ghanim al-Qureyshi, the Shiite director general of police in Diyala province, of trying to maintain a Shiite majority in the department.

A spokesman for al-Qureyshi said the police chief did not want to comment on the protests.

Iraqi police arrested 31 Shiite activists in raids south of Baghdad on the third day of U.S.-Iraqi operations in an area that includes several Shiite holy cities.

The raids have raised tensions with some Shiite tribesmen and fighters who have pledged to halt attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces. Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr ordered a six-month cease-fire for his Mahdi Army militia, but some members have broken away and violated the pledge, which expires later this month.

Fifteen of Saturday's arrests were in Karbala, a Shiite holy city 50 miles south of Baghdad. Sixteen others were arrested in a Sadrist area in Nasiriyah, about 200 miles southeast of the capital, police said.