U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales is likely to be formally charged in the shooting deaths of 16 Afghan villagers within days, a U.S. Army official told Agence France Presse Monday.
He faces the possibility of the death penalty if he is convicted, according to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
Under the U.S. military justice system, prosecutors draft charges to be filed against an accused soldier, then present them to his unit commander.
The commander must decide whether the documents show there is enough evidence to believe the accused soldier committed a crime. If so, the commander signs the charging documents so the case can be "preferred" for formal prosecution.
"My understanding is that the preferral of charges on Sergeant Bales will be announced by (his commanding officer in) Afghanistan," the Army official told AFP. "I expect it to be within the next few days. It is that point in time when a suspect is formally charged."
Before trial, Bales must appear at an "Article 32" hearing, which is as a preliminary hearing at which prosecutors argue for a court-martial.
Bales, 38, is accused of leaving his base in the Panjwayi district of Kandahar province on the night of March 11 to kill 16 Afghan villagers, including nine children. He allegedly set several of their bodies on fire.
Afterward, prosecutors say Bales returned to his base and turned himself in to authorities.
The attack plunged U.S.-Afghan relations into a deep crisis. Afghan President Hamid Karzai responded by saying international forces should leave villages in his country.
Bales initially was sent to a military base in Kuwait then transferred to the U.S. military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where he is kept in isolation in a cell, according to Army officials.
Bales is represented by both a civilian attorney and a military attorney.
His civilian attorney, John Henry Browne, said he plans to interview his client at the prison Monday and Tuesday.
Browne said at a press conference that Bales had been under stress recently, which was heightened when he witnessed a fellow soldier seriously wounded by stepping on a mine. He did not explain the legal defense he would use for his client.
The U.S. media reported Bales and his wife were enduring financial problems.
The non-commissioned officer, who joined the Army two months after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, served three tours of duty in Iraq and had been in Afghanistan since December.
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