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Killer of Marines tried and convicted in Afghanistan as a juvenile; Marine family outraged

Marines and sailors with 3rd Marine Regiment pay their respects to Staff Sgt. Scott Dickinson, Cpl. Richard Rivera Jr., and Lance Cpl. Gregory Buckley during a memorial service on Oct. 29, 2012, at Marine Corps Base Hawaii. The Marines were killed in Afghanistan in an insider attack on Aug. 10 of that year. (Photo by Kristen Wong/ Marine Corps)

It was one of the most shocking insider attacks in the war in Afghanistan: Four U.S. Marines were cut down in a hail of gunfire while working out in a base gym in Helmand province on Aug. 10, 2012. The ambush killed three of them, while a fourth sustained five gunshot wounds and survived.

A  teenager working for the Afghan police chief on the base was accused in the killing. The boy, identified Friday by the Marine Corps as Ainuddin Khudairaham, was accused of stealing a Kalashnikov assault rifle and opening fire on the unarmed Marines until he ran out of ammunition. He is said to have bragged about it afterward to Afghan police, saying “I just did jihad.”

Killed in the attack were Staff Sgt. Scott E. Dickinson, 29, Cpl. Richard A. Rivera, 20, and Lance Cpl. Gregory T. Buckley Jr., 21. They were part of an adviser team working with Afghan police at Forward Operating Base Delhi in Garmsir district.

Buckley’s family said they were told by Marine officials  that the teenager — identified as Aynoddin in some reports — would be tried as an adult, and likely executed by the Afghan government. Buckley’s father, Gregory Sr., expressed interestin traveling to Afghanistan to see the trial and was promised he would have assistance to do so, said Michael J. Bowe, a lawyer assisting the family. The family pushed the Marine Corps for details as the investigation slowly proceeded, he added.

The pace of the legal proceedings got a jolt in recent weeks, however. Ainuddin was tried as a juvenile this week, convicted on Wednesday and sentenced to 7 1/2 years in confinement, the maximum under Afghan law for a minor, the Marine Corps confirmed on Friday. The family says they were not told about the trial date until Thursday, and only after they inquired about it with sources they knew who were following the case.

“Yesterday, we received reports that, in fact, the murderer already had been tried and sentenced as a juvenile,” Bowe said in a letter Friday to a Marine lawyer involved in the case, Maj. Jennifer Parker. “Neither you nor the Marine Corps notified the Buckley family of this development, and they were left instead to scramble to confirm rumors communicated to them from the press and other sources.”

The letter, a copy of which was provided to The Washington Post, alleges that the Buckley family was “misled, abandoned and betrayed” by the Marine Corps because Marine officials did not share the trial date ahead of time, even though they were aware of it on Monday.

Parker did not return a request for comment. Col. Sean Gibson, a Marine spokesman at the Pentagon, defended the Marine Corps in a long written response to questions on Friday, saying that a staff judge advocate with the Marine headquarters unit in Afghanistan asked Marine ­casualty-assistance personnel to deliver the news in person, but family members heard it from other sources first.

The same Marine lawyer in Afghanistan learned Monday evening that the trial would begin the following day, and notified casualty assistance officers in the United States about it, Gibson said.

The situation caught the family flat-footed, they said. Gibson said the “subsequent notification of families commenced” after the casualty assistance officers were notified. But Marine officials could not say Friday when the family was notified, and the Buckleys said it occurred after the trial concluded.

“Since the time of the incident, regular contact with the affected families has been maintained in order to keep them informed of related investigative and legal developments,” Gibson’s written response said. “At various times over the past 23 months, family members have been contacted by Marine Casualty Assistance Calls Officers (CACOs), Marine Corps staff judge advocates and Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents. Our approach to supporting the families of our fallen Marines is based on our unwavering commitment to loyalty.”

But MaryLiz Grosseto, the fallen Marine’s aunt, said in a phone interview Thursday night that the family is devastated both by the way the case was handled, and the fact that the shooter will get a relatively light sentence as a juvenile.

“This is the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Grosseto said. “If one of our boys had killed an Afghan, they would have got 25 years to life in [the brig at] Fort Leavenworth.”

Bowe, the family’s lawyer, said that Marine officials in Afghanistan responded to questions “only in response to continued pressure from the Buckley family and its lawyers” and “punted” their additional questions to enlisted casualty assistance officers who could not get the information to them in a timely fashion.

The decision to try the shooter as a juvenile took months to finalize, Gibson said. Like many in Afghanistan, the shooter’s birth date is not known. Afghan medical personnel conducted two bone density age verification tests on him, and determined that he was between 17 and 18 at the time of the killings. Based on that, Afghan officials determined that he would be tried as a juvenile on June 30, Gibson said.

The first of those tests occurred a couple of weeks after the shooting, on Aug. 29, 2012, Gibson said. The second occurred a few months ago on May 10, 2014. Both tests showed Ainuddin was about 17 at the time of the attack, the Marine Corps said, but the Buckley family maintains they were told the first test showed he was an adult.

The attack came amid a rash of insider attacks, in which Afghan troops or insurgents wearing their uniforms ambush the coalition forces training them. As of June 24, 2014, there have been at least 87 in Afghanistan since 2008, killing 142 coalition troops and wounding an additional 165, according to a tally kept by the Long War Journal. Nearly half of those attacks occurred in 2012, prompting the military to adopt a variety of new safety precautions.

The investigation into what happened at FOB Delhi has been dogged by allegations that the police chief, Sarwar Jan, the shooter was working for was closely aligned with the Taliban. He previously had been removed as the police chief in another district in Helmand province in 2010 after Marines suspected he was providing supplies to the Taliban.

Nevertheless, Sarwar Jan was installed by the Afghan government as the police chief in Garmsir district in the months ahead of the shooting. A Marine officer who worked with him in 2009 and 2010, Maj. Jason Brezler, sent a warning to deployed Marines in 2012 about the police chief, but he kept his position. To do so, Brezler sent classified information over an unclassified network, and reported himself.

The Marine Corps subsequently decided to separate Brezler from the service against his will, determining that he handled classified information inappropriately by sending the classified information incorrectly and keeping other classified documents on his personal hard drive. The case made national news and drew criticism from several lawmakers, including Rep. Peter King (R.-N.Y.) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).