By Laura L. Myers
SEATTLE (Reuters) - A military appeals court has ordered Army prosecutors to halt proceedings against one of five U.S. soldiers charged with murdering unarmed Afghan civilians and staging them to appear as combat casualties.
Lawyers for Private Andrew Holmes had petitioned the Army Court of Criminal Appeals asking that sealed photographic evidence, which they acknowledge may be inflammatory but say will exonerate their client, be opened to public scrutiny.
They also asked the court to stay the so-called Article 32 investigative proceedings against Holmes, 20, from Boise Idaho, until a decision on the photos is reached.
The appeals court granted the stay Friday and gave the government 20 days to answer the pleadings from Holmes' legal team. Defense lawyers, who received notice of the court's order Saturday, would have 14 days after that to reply.
Holmes is the youngest of five soldiers charged with murder in the investigation of what military prosecutors describe as a rogue infantry platoon run amok earlier this year in the Afghan province of Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold.
Seven others in their unit, part of what was then the 5th Striker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, face lesser charges in the case, which began as a probe of soldiers' hashish use.
The inquiry has grown into the most serious prosecution of alleged atrocities by U.S. troops in nearly nine years of conflict in Afghanistan.
Several defendants, including Holmes, are alleged to have collected fingers and other body parts removed from dead Afghans as war trophies.
But the most potentially explosive elements of the case are dozens of ghoulish photos Holmes and others are accused of having taken of Afghan war dead, some said to be showing U.S. troops posing with the bodies.
The inflammatory nature of the images has drawn comparisons with pictures of Iraqi prisoners taken by U.S. military personnel at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2004, which caused worldwide outrage.
Holmes' civilian lawyers argue that the military's decision to seal the photos, barring them from being shown in open court, effectively denies Holmes his constitutional right to a public trial because defense attorneys cannot cross-examine military investigators about the pictures.
His lawyers say the five to 10 photos at issue in Holmes' case are unclassified.
The government has "a legitimate interest in not inflaming the Afghan population, but the answer is if that is a legitimate concern, dismiss the charges. Don't deny fundamental rights to our client," New Hampshire-based defense lawyer Gary Myers told Reuters by telephone.
"We love our country, but we have to defend our client here," said co-defense counsel Dan Conway.
The most serious charge against Holmes, which could result in life in prison, is premeditated murder in connection with the death of an Afghan villager investigators say was killed in January by a grenade blast and machine-gun fire.
That marked the first of three unjustified slayings that soldiers in Holmes' platoon allegedly staged to look like legitimate war casualties from January through May.
The defense maintains the photos exonerate Holmes by showing the victim was likely killed by a grenade, rather than the kind of automatic weapon Holmes was armed with.
Holmes is confined to a military brig at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Washington.
The fourth soldier charged with murder is slated to appear Monday for the next Article 32 hearing in the case.
(Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Chris Wilson)