By Bill Rigby
SEATTLE (Reuters) - The lawyer defending the U.S. soldier accused of murdering 17 Afghan civilians claims U.S. authorities are blocking his ability to investigate the incident.
John Henry Browne, the lawyer for Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, said U.S. forces in Afghanistan have prevented his team from interviewing injured civilians at a hospital in Kandahar, and are allowing other potential witnesses to scatter, making it difficult to track them down.
"When prosecutors don't cooperate, it's because they are concerned about the strength of their case," said Browne at a press conference at his downtown Seattle office on Friday.
Bales was formally charged last week with the murders of eight adults and nine children in a pre-dawn shooting rampage in southern Afghanistan on March 11, which further eroded U.S.-Afghan relations already strained by a decade of war.
He could face the death penalty if convicted.
No date has been set for a trial, but U.S. military prosecutors are putting together their case while Browne is preparing his defense.
Browne said he has a team of investigators in Afghanistan now, but they are receiving little cooperation from military prosecutors who filed the charges.
"We are facing an almost complete information blackout from the government, which is having a devastating effect on our ability to investigate the charges preferred against our client," he said in a statement released earlier on Friday.
A reliable account of the events of the night of the massacre has not yet emerged. A recent report indicated Afghan villagers doubt Bales acted alone. Other reports suggest Bales left his base twice during the night.
"I don't believe that's the case, but we don't know for sure at this point," Browne said on Friday.
Browne said his investigators had spoken to U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan but had not managed to contact any witnesses.
"When we tried to interview the injured civilians being treated at Kandahar Hospital we were denied access and told to coordinate with the prosecution team," Browne said in the earlier statement.
"The next day the prosecution team interviewed the civilians injured. We found out shortly after the prosecution interviews of the injured civilians that the civilians were all released from the hospital and there was no contact information for them." That means potential witnesses will scatter and could prove unreachable, Browne said.
Prosecutors had not shared their investigative findings with his team, and would not share images captured by a surveillance camera on a blimp above the base which the Army says shows Bales returning to the camp after the alleged shooting, he said.
The next step in the case is for Bales - who is being held at a military detention center at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas - to undergo a mental assessment by Army doctors independent of both the prosecution and defense, to determine if he is fit to stand trial, known as a "sanity board" in the Army.
That could take several months, Browne said.
After that has occurred, the military justice system requires a preliminary hearing, known as an "Article 32" hearing, to establish whether there is a strong enough case to proceed to a court martial.
Browne said it was too early to say whether post-traumatic stress disorder would feature in his defense against the charges. "I don't know whether it will at all," said Browne.
"First thing we have to find out is whether the government has a case. Until we're convinced the government has a case, we're not going to start speculating on what our defenses are going to be."
(Reporting By Bill Rigby; Editing by Todd Eastham and Paul Simao)