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U.S. military judge won't dismiss prosecutors in Afghan rampage case

By Jonathan Kaminsky

OLYMPIA, Washington (Reuters) - A military judge in the case of a U.S. soldier who pleaded guilty to slaughtering 16 Afghan civilians declined to dismiss the prosecution team on Wednesday, despite defense complaints that keeping the team on could prejudice proceedings, the defense team said.

Attorneys for Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales complained that his constitutional right not to incriminate himself was violated when the judge mistakenly provided prosecutors with an unredacted copy of a mental health evaluation. They sought to have the prosecutors disqualified over the incident.

But defense lawyers received word on Wednesday that the judge, Army Colonel Jeffery Nance, had denied the request, according to Kathy Martens, a paralegal for Bales's civilian defense attorney John Henry Browne.

An Army spokesman declined to confirm the report, and Browne declined to comment on the ruling. Browne had previously said that a decision to keep the prosecution team "would be a huge issue on appeal."

Bales, in a deal that spares him the death penalty, pleaded guilty in June to walking off his base in Afghanistan's Kandahar province before dawn on March 11, 2012, and gunning down civilians in their homes in at least two villages.

He will still face a sentencing hearing next week that will determine whether he will ever have a shot at parole or spend the rest of his life in prison. His lawyers had argued that the fairness of that proceeding had been compromised.

Prosecutors argued during the hearing that seeing a document was not equivalent to using it against a defendant, and that the error should not result in disqualification.

Bales, a decorated veteran of four combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, acknowledged the killings upon pleading guilty in June and told the court there was "not a good reason in this world" for his actions.

His attack marked the worst case of civilian slaughter blamed on a lone, rogue U.S. soldier since the Vietnam War, and further strained U.S.-Afghan relations after more than a decade of conflict in that country.

Defense attorneys have argued that Bales, a father of two from Lake Tapps, Washington, was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and a brain injury even before his deployment to Afghanistan.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Leslie Adler)

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