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Army sergeant pleads not guilty to assault in Afghanistan

By Laura L. Myers

SEATTLE (Reuters) - A U.S. Army sergeant charged with beating up a fellow soldier and shooting at an unarmed civilian while deployed in Afghanistan pleaded not guilty on Thursday as his court-martial opened near Tacoma, Washington.

Sergeant Darren Jones, 30, of Pomona, California, is one of a dozen soldiers accused in connection with the most far-reaching prosecution of alleged wrongdoing by U.S. military personnel during 10 years of war in Afghanistan.

Five soldiers from the infantry unit formerly known as the 5th Stryker Brigade were charged with murdering unarmed Afghan villagers in cold blood during their deployment in 2010. One of them, Jeremy Morlock, was sentenced in March to 24 years in prison after pleading guilty to three counts of murder and agreeing to testify against his co-defendants.

Seven other men, including Jones, were charged with less serious offenses stemming from an investigation that began as an inquiry into drug use by U.S. troops. Five of those cases already have been completed with varying sentences.

Jones was the first to request a five-member military panel to hear evidence against him at court-martial. The proceedings, overseen by military judge Lieutenant Colonel Kwasi Hawks, could last several days, said Major Christopher Ophardt, an Army spokesman at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Jones faces two counts of conspiracy to commit assault, one count of unlawfully striking another soldier, one count of assault with a dangerous weapon and one count of impeding an investigation.

Army prosecutors say Jones opened fire on an unarmed Afghan while on patrol in March 2010 and took part in discussions about how to stage killings of civilians to look like combat casualties.

The Army also says that Jones participated in the May 2010 beating of Private First Class Justin Stoner, whose complaint of widespread hashish use in his platoon led to the Army probe of civilian slayings in southern Afghanistan.

Magazines Der Spiegel of Germany and Rolling Stone have published several photos related to the killings, one showing Morlock crouched grinning over the bloodied corpse of an Afghan teenager, lifting the youth's head by the hair for the camera.

The existence of such photos, among dozens under a protective seal by Army officials as evidence, has drawn comparisons with pictures of Iraqi prisoners taken by U.S. military personnel at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison that were made public in 2004.

Jones faces a maximum punishment of 22 years in prison if convicted, Ophardt told Reuters.

(Editing by Steve Gorman and Cynthia Johnston)