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US soldiers proudly took body parts of Afghan civilians as souvenirs
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8:00 AM Saturday Sep 24, 2011

After tearfully asking for mercy, a 21-year-old US soldier among five charged in the thrill killings of Afghan civilians last year was sentenced on Friday, local time, to seven years in prison, an Army spokesman said.

Pvt. 1st Class Andrew Holmes' sentence comes one day after he changed his plea to guilty in a deal with Army prosecutors. The soldier from Boise, Idaho, confessed in court that he fired a heavy machine gun at a startled, unarmed boy from 15 feet (4.5 meters) away after a co-defendant tossed a grenade at him.

Army spokesman Joe Kubistek said that Holmes will receive a dishonorable discharge after serving his sentence. He'll also forfeit his Army pay.

Holmes' family cried as judge Lt. Col. Kwasi Hawks read the sentence, prefacing it by telling Holmes that, "I hope and I believe you will have a long and productive life, and I believe a happy life."

But Hawks also told Holmes there was no excuse for the murder.

"You aimed a fully loaded squad automatic weapon at (a) child that stood 15 feet away," Hawks told him.

The soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord south of Seattle were arrested in Afghanistan last year, after prosecutors said they killed three civilians for sport during patrols in Kandahar Province in January, February and May of 2010.

Holmes was accused of directly participating in the first killing and was initially charged with conspiracy, premeditated murder and other charges. In a deal with prosecutors, he pleaded guilty to murder by an inherently dangerous act, possessing a finger bone from his victim, and smoking hashish.

"Please give me the opportunity to be a son, a brother, a nephew," Holmes told Hawks on Friday.

The charges against the five soldiers from what was formerly known as the 5th Stryker Brigade, since renamed the 2nd Stryker Brigade, are among the most serious war crimes charges to emerge from the Afghan war.

Prosecutors say that in addition to killing three men, some of the defendants kept body parts severed from the corpses as well as photographs kept as war trophies. Drug use was rampant in the unit, and one soldier who blew the whistle on hash smoking by his comrades was beaten up and threatened in retaliation.

As he delivered his closing argument, prosecutor Maj. Rob Stelle placed a blown-up photo of Holmes standing over the boy he killed.

"It was callous, reckless indifference, a depraved heart," Stelle said. "The accused had a choice. He pulled the trigger and ended that man's life."

Holmes' lawyer, Dan Conway, argued his client was a 19-year-old soldier placed in a difficult situation.

- AP