A US military court on Thursday convicted an army squad commander of three counts of premeditated murder for leading a "kill team" in Afghanistan that targeted unarmed civilians and collected body parts as war trophies. While three of the four defendants pleaded guilty and received reduced sentences, Sgt. Calvin Gibbs [NYT profile], 26, was given a life sentence for 15 convictions including murder, assault and conspiracy connected to the killing of three men not long after he took over the Fifth Brigade of the US Army [official website] Second Division in Afghanistan's Kandahar province in November 2009. Gibbs admitted to cutting and keeping fingers from the corpses as trophies, but claimed that he was merely returning enemy fire and was not motivated to kill. Prosecutors, however, relied on Gibbs' own likening of collecting amputated body parts to the antlers of a deer to characterize the platoon leader as a hunter who killed Afghans "for sport." Two co-defendants testified against their former leader, and told the court that Gibbs not only collected fingers and teeth from those he called "savages," but that he also took pictures next to the victims before leaving weapons around their bodies. While Gibbs has been given a life sentence, the court also granted the possibility of parole after less than 10 years.
Although the "kill team" incident has been considered one of the worst examples of American war crimes since the start of the Afghanistan campaign, other crimes have been alleged. In September 2010, former UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Philip Alston [JURIST news archive] called for an investigation [JURIST report] into the conduct by both Taliban and US and British military forces, and expressed particular concern over the number of civilian deaths during the war in Afghanistan. At the time, Alston made specific reference to the alleged killings revealed [JURIST report] in secret military files published by WikiLeaks [website]. The latter has been described as the largest unauthorized release of classified documents in US military history allegedly littered with US war crime evidence.