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USA Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales has been charged on 17 counts of premeditated murder of Afghan civilians, the Army stated.

Bales, 38, also faces six charges of assault and attempted murder, the Army said. Under US military law, criminal charges were formally preferred today against Bales.

The charges allege that on March 11, Bales murdered Afghans near Belambey, in the Panjwai district of Afghanistan’s Kandahar province. If convicted, the maximum possible punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice is the death penalty with a mandatory minimum sentence of imprisonment for life with eligibility for parole.

Nine children, four women and four men died in the shootings, while four children, one woman and one man were injured.

Marine Corps General John Allen, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, said “we are under some very trying circumstances” in the country when asked about the aftermath of the killings. He said Afghans “understand these kinds of things happen and are not happy about it”.

Allen said Afghans knew the US would hold those who commit crimes responsible for their actions. He said the Afghan “leadership is confident that we’ll investigate thoroughly, try the case thoroughly and, if required, hold the individual responsible”.

In a murder charge, the term premeditated refers to a “consciously conceived” intent to kill, Army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jimmie Cummings said.

The Army released a “charge sheet” about the incident that redacted the names of the victims and provided no details about how the shooting unfolded.

The next step in the process is a so-called special court-martial to be convened at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, which is the home base for Bales.

The investigation may determine whether a general court-martial will be convened to try the case.

The soldier’s civilian attorney, John Henry Browne, has questioned how much evidence the military has in the case. Browne has also said his client suffered a traumatic brain injury during one of three tours in Iraq and didn’t want to go to Afghanistan, where he was deployed in December.

Bales, a qualified sniper with the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Regiment of the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat team, was in Afghanistan in support of US Special Operations forces. He is being held in confinement at a military prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

The killings exacerbated tensions between the US and Afghanistan, already at a high level after the burning of Korans last month in a trash dump at the largest US base in the country. Protests followed across Afghanistan, and six American military personnel were killed by Afghans.

President Barack Obama called Afghan President Hamid Karzai after the shootings of which Bales is accused, pledging “to hold fully accountable anyone responsible”.

A trial may not begin for at least a year, according to Colby Vokey, a retired Marine Corps officer who tried or supervised hundreds of military cases as chief prosecutor and later chief defence counsel at Camp Pendleton, California.

Questioning the evidence in the case, Browne, the Seattle attorney representing Bales, said this week: “If I was the prosecutor, I’d be concerned about how we prove anything.”

Browne also has indicated he may seek a “diminished capacity” defence for his client. He said this week that Bales was “confused” and did not recall some details of the alleged assault.

A mental-health defence may be difficult to win before military jurors, according to Christopher Swift, a fellow at the University of Virginia Law School’s Centre for National Security Law.

He said that strategy may help avert a death sentence if the military sought it in the case.

“I see this as a defence that’s aimed at mitigating the ultimate penalty,” Swift said.

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