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Soldier gets death penalty for killing officers in Kuwait

A military jury sentenced a U.S. soldier to death for killing two officers in a grenade and rifle attack in Kuwait — murders for which the defendant apologized in a brief, barely audible statement.
Sgt. Hasan Akbar at Fort Bragg, N.C., in an April 20 photograph.Gerry Broome / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Hours after giving a brief, barely audible apology, a soldier was sentenced to death by a military jury for attacking comrades with a rifle and grenades early in the Iraq invasion.

Sgt. Hasan Akbar, 34, could have been sentenced Thursday to life in prison with or without parole for the March 2003 attack on members of the elite 101st Airborne Division at Camp Pennsylvania in Kuwait. Two officers were killed and 14 other soldiers were wounded.

“I want to apologize for the attack that occurred. I felt that my life was in jeopardy, and I had no other options. I also want to ask you for forgiveness,” Akbar told the jury before it began deliberating. He spoke in such a low voice that even prosecutors sitting nearby had trouble hearing, with one lawyer even cupping his ear.

Jurors took about seven hours to reach their decision Thursday. Last week, the same 15-person military jury took just two and a half hours last week to convict Akbar of premeditated murder and attempted premeditated murder.

The sentence will be reviewed by a commanding officer and automatically appealed. If Akbar is executed, it would be by lethal injection.

Mental illness defense
Although the defense contends Akbar was too mentally ill to plan the attack, they have never disputed that he threw grenades into troop tents in the early morning darkness and then fired on soldiers in the ensuing chaos. Army Capt. Chris Seifert, 27, and Air Force Maj. Gregory Stone, 40, were killed.

Prosecutors say Akbar launched the attack at his camp — days before the soldiers were to move into Iraq — because he was concerned about U.S. troops killing fellow Muslims in the Iraq war.

“He is a hate-filled, ideologically driven murderer,” chief prosecutor Lt. Col. Michael Mulligan said. He added that Akbar wrote in his diary in 1997, “My life will not be complete unless America is destroyed.”

Akbar is the first American since the Vietnam era to be prosecuted on charges of murdering a fellow soldier during wartime.

“Hasan Akbar has robbed me of so many things,” said Tammie Eslinger, Stone’s fiancee, after the sentencing. “He stole my love, my family, my dreams and my future. But he could never steal my spirit.”

Seifert’s widow, Theresa, said she was satisfied with the military justice system. She called Akbar “a nonentity to me.”

Defense attorney Maj. David Coombs told jurors that a sentence of life without parole would allow Akbar to be treated for mental illness and possibly rehabilitated.

“Death is an absolute punishment, a punishment of last resort,” Coombs said.

A defense psychiatrist testified that although Akbar was legally sane and understood the consequences of his attack, he suffered from forms of paranoia and schizophrenia.

Complaints of religious, racial harassment
Akbar’s father, John Akbar, has said his son complained in vain to his superiors about religious and racial harassment before the attack. The defense never introduced any witnesses to testify about any such harassment.

John Akbar was not in the courtroom for the verdict. He emerged from a meeting with his son in tears and declined to comment.

Akbar will be the sixth person on the military’s death row at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. The last U.S. military execution was in 1961.