AMMAN, Jordan – A Jordanian soldier was sentenced Monday to life in prison after being convicted of killing three U.S. military trainers last year, but some said questions lingered about his motive for the shooting at a Jordanian air base.
Jordan has ruled out terrorism in the November shooting in which the convoy of the U.S. Army Green Berets came under fire at the base entrance.
The defendant has said he felt no animosity toward Americans and opened fire because he believed the base was coming under attack.
However, relatives of the slain U.S. troops have described security camera footage that they say shows him shooting for six minutes, reloading and aiming at the Americans, even as they identify themselves as friendly forces.
After a “not guilty” plea, the Jordanian soldier, 1st Sgt. Marik al-Tuwayha, was tried by a military court in Jordan’s capital of Amman for the killings of Staff Sgt. Matthew C. Lewellen, 27, of Kirksville, Missouri; Staff Sgt. Kevin J. McEnroe, 30, of Tucson, Arizona; and Staff Sgt. James F. Moriarty, 27, of Kerrville, Texas.
During the monthlong trial, he watched the proceedings silently while standing in a cage in the courtroom.
He did not react Monday when the judge announced the verdict and the maximum possible sentence, life in prison with hard labour. When he was led out of the cage, he said: “I have all the respect for the king, but I was doing my job.”
Relatives of two of the U.S. soldiers sat quietly as the judge read the ruling.
Charles Lewellen, 53, whose son was killed, later told The Associated Press that the verdict “won’t take the pain away,” but that it proved “what we have been saying all along … that he murdered our sons.”
Some of the relatives criticized Jordan’s handling of the case and said the defendant should have received the death penalty. Jordan allows the death penalty, but it is usually handed down in terrorism cases or in a murder coupled with another crime.
The Americans were killed Nov. 4, as their convoy waited at the gate to the al-Jafr base in southern Jordan. Jordan initially said the Americans triggered the shooting by disobeying entry rules, a claim that was later withdrawn.
The trial “confirmed that the deceased U.S. service members followed all established procedures when accessing the base the day of the incident, as we have noted before,” the U.S. Embassy in Jordan said. “We are reassured to see the perpetrator brought to justice.”
Jordan is a member of a U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State group extremists in neighbouring Syria and Iraq. Jordan hosts troops, including trainers, from the U.S. and other countries as part of the anti-IS battle.
“We are pleased to see that the perpetrators have been brought to justice,” said U.S. Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman. He said the U.S. respects Jordan’s military process and praised Jordan for adhering to its own laws in resolving the case expeditiously.
Davis wouldn’t comment on possible motives for the killing.
At the trial, al-Tuwayha and some of the gate guards testified they heard what might have been a pistol shot coming from the direction of the U.S. convoy. Al-Tuwayha said he opened fire because he feared the base was under attack. Other guards said they held their fire because they couldn’t determine the source of the sound.
Al-Tuwayha has said he had “no intention of killing anyone” and felt no resentment toward Americans.
According to the surveillance video described by the relatives, Lewellen and McEnroe were the first to be hit by gunfire. Moriarty and another soldier jumped out of their cars to take cover and returned fire from their pistols, according to the descriptions of the video. They yelled that they were friendly forces, the relatives said.
The defendant kept shooting, they said. He was seriously wounded in the exchange.
The video was shown to the family by U.S. law enforcement, but has not been released to the public.
Some of the relatives have questioned why the video was not screened at the trial and why the court did not ask a surviving U.S. soldier to testify, despite what they said was his willingness to do so.
Moriarty’s father, Jim, wrote in a letter Monday to the Jordanian Embassy in the U.S. that the “successful prosecution” was a “good first step, but it is only the first step.”
In the letter, a copy of which was given to the AP, Moriarty listed several demands to Jordan. These included allowing the defendant to be re-interviewed by the FBI about his motive and releasing the security video to the families. Moriarty, a lawyer, said the video had been entered into evidence at the trial.
Cynthia Lewellen, 53, the mother of Matthew Lewellen, expressed sympathy for all those affected by the shooting, including the family of the defendant.
“In this verdict, nobody comes out happy,” she said. “I mean for us as losing our sons and knowing the man that killed him will spend 20 years in prison, but also for his family that because of his actions … lost a father, a husband, a provider.”
In Jordan, life in prison can mean 20 years, with time off for good behaviour.
Defence lawyer Subhi al-Mawas said he would appeal Monday’s court ruling.
Earlier this year, a Jordanian soldier who killed seven Israeli schoolgirls in a 1997 shooting rampage was released after 20 years.