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US soldier 'cut off trophy fingers'

A US army staff sergeant cut fingers off the corpses of three Afghan civilians - but he had nothing to do with any plot to slaughter those unarmed men for sport, his lawyer has told a court martial.

Staff Sgt Calvin Gibbs pleaded not guilty to 16 criminal charges ranging from murder to taking the fingers as bloody souvenirs.

He says the three killings early last year were legitimate engagements - and that his co-defendants conspired to blame him when they got caught.

"What you are seeing in this case is the ultimate betrayal of an infantryman," Gibbs's lawyer, Phil Stackhouse, told jurors in his opening statement at the Washington hearing.

In some of the most gruesome allegations to emerge from the Afghan war, prosecutors say Gibbs and his co-defendants slaughtered the victims with grenades and powerful machine guns during patrols in Kandahar province, then dropped weapons near their bodies to make them appear to have been combatants.

Of the five soldiers charged as part of the so-called "kill team" within the platoon, three have pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against Gibbs, who faces up to life in prison without parole if convicted.

Gibbs, 26, is the highest ranking of those charged. Others in the unit, including some of his co-defendants, portrayed him as a sociopath with little respect for life - a man who gunned down dogs without provocation, threatened fellow soldiers and who tallied his kills with skull tattoos on his calves.

Another lead figure in the plot, Private Jeremy Morlock, testified that Gibbs played with the corpse of the first victim, a teenager, as if it was a puppet. The jurors were shown graphic photographs, including one in which Morlock stood over the victim's body and held up his head as though he had just bagged a deer.

A prosecutor, Capt Dan Mazzone, told the jurors that Gibbs took advantage of weak leadership in the platoon to lead his juniors into the diabolical plot. This would not be a case where they have to second-guess difficult combat decisions, Capt Mazzone told them, adding: "This case is the exact opposite: It is about premeditated murder."

Gibbs's lawyer sought to lay the blame for any unjustified killings with Gibbs's comrades. When Gibbs came to the unit, hash smoking was already rampant, he said. Mr Stackhouse admitted in his opening statement that Gibbs took fingers from the victims. He noted that while it is inappropriate to take such trophies, soldiers are taught to disassociate war casualties from the human being they once were.

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