An American soldier charged with killing 16 Afghan civilians in cold blood last year has pleaded guilty to escape the death penalty.
Staff Sergeant Robert Bales pleaded guilty to premeditated murder and other charges in a military court on Wednesday under a deal reached with military prosecutors.
According to defense lawyers, Bales could be given a life imprisonment sentence instead of a death penalty by pleading guilty to the massacre that marked the worst case of civilian slaughter by a rogue U.S. soldier since the Vietnam War.
Bales wandered off his Army post in the Afghan province of Kandahar last March and gunned down unarmed civilians, mostly women and children, during nighttime raids in nearby villages.
Family members of the 16 civilians including nine children who were murdered by Bales have expressed outrage over the notion that the rogue soldier could escape execution.
“A prison sentence doesn't mean anything,” said Saeed Jan, who lost his wife and three other relatives in the massacre, according to AP.
“My last request from the world, all the countries, is that as a family of the victims we want our killer to be hanged,” said Haji Baran, whose brother was killed in the massacre.
In a sentencing phase of the trial set for August, a court-martial jury will determine whether to include the possibility of parole in Bales’ life imprisonment sentence, a decision, that if taken, would further infuriate the Afghans.
The U.S. military has traditionally been slow to convict service members for crimes against foreign citizens. No service member has been executed since 1961.