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US Marines spoofed drone to cover up murder, court told

Thermal-imagery pantomime

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US Marines in Iraq staged an elaborate fake gunfight to foil an overhead surveillance drone and cover up a murder, according to court testimony.

Wired reports that the Marines successfully spoofed infrared imagery, producing the appearance of a legitimate combat engagement. Only a surprise confession by a Navy medic (or "corpsman") attached to the unit led to the true events being uncovered.

Investigations by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) and resulting court-martials have been underway since the incident took place in April last year. Several Marines have joined naval corpsman Melson Bacos in testifying against their comrades as part of plea bargains for reduced sentences.

According to court testimony and reports, a Marine squad led by Sergeant Lawrence Hutchins III deliberately set out to kill an insurgent named Saleh Gowad, who had previously been captured and released several times. Failing to find him, they randomly seized disabled ex-policeman Hashim Awad from his home as he slept.

The Marines cuffed Awad and took him to a nearby bomb crater. At this point the drone approached for its first pass overhead. One of the group moved forward and dug a hole at the crater, while the others posed with Awad behind a wall. The recorded thermal imagery from the aircraft seemed to show troops watching an insurgent digging by the road, perhaps to place a bomb.

After the drone had passed, the group moved Awad forward to the hole. But at this point the surveillance platform returned, so one of the Marines wrapped himself around Awad so as to create a single thermal signature, disguising the captive's presence.

They then moved in and put the bound Awad in the hole. A stolen AK47 was fired from that location so as to leave spent cartridges, then wiped off and Awad's fingerprints put on it. Sergeant Hutchins then called his superiors for permission to open fire on a bomb-planting insurgent and Awad was shot repeatedly in the head by two of the Marines as he lay bound, according to testimony from Bacos.

"Congratulations gents, we just got away with murder," Hutchins is reported as saying. Bacos later claimed that he had objected, but was told by a Marine to "quit being a pussy".

Imagery from the drone was shown to investigators afterwards, when Awad's family complained to their sheikh about the killing. The surveillance footage apparently convinced the NCIS agents entirely, such that they believed they were dealing with a "good shoot". They were apparently flabbergasted when Bacos spontaneously confessed.

Hutchins has refused to plead guilty. The court-martials continue. ®

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