SEATTLE -- The German news organization Der Spiegel published photographs Sunday showing two U.S. soldiers posing with the corpse of an Afghan civilian they're accused of murdering.
The photos were among several seized by Army investigators looking into the deaths of three unarmed Afghans last year. Five soldiers based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, south of Seattle, have been charged with murder and conspiracy in the case.
Due to their content, the photographs were placed under a strict protective order that initially prevented even defense attorneys from obtaining copies.
One of the published photographs shows a key figure in the investigation, Cpl. Jeremy Morlock of Wasilla, grinning as he lifts the head of a corpse by the hair. Der Spiegel identified the body as that of Gul Mudin, whom Morlock claims to have killed along with Pvt. 1st Class Andrew Holmes on Jan. 15, 2010, in Kandahar Province.
Another photo shows Holmes, of Boise, Idaho, lifting the same corpse by the hair. His lawyer said Sunday that he was ordered to be in the photo, which was taken while the platoon leader, Lt. Roman Ligsay, was present.
Ligsay has asserted his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in refusing to testify in the legal proceedings against his troops.
"They ordered him to be in the photo, so he got in the photo," attorney Daniel Conway said. "That doesn't make him a murderer."
A third photo depicts two apparently dead men propped against a small pillar. Der Spiegel said the photo was seized from a member of the platoon, but did not involve the deaths being investigated as war crimes. Soldiers have told investigators that such photos of dead bodies were passed around like trading cards on thumb drives and other digital storage devices.
"Today Der Spiegel published photographs depicting actions repugnant to us as human beings and contrary to the standards and values of the United States Army," the Army said in a statement released by Col. Thomas Collins. "We apologize for the distress these photos cause."
In a long war marked by often strained relations between U.S. forces and Afghans, civilian casualties have been one of the most sensitive issues. And U.S. Army officials feared that publication of these photos would be another blow to efforts to improve those relations and sought to keep the images from leaking to the media.
The killings at issue occurred during patrols in January, February and May 2010. After the first death, one member of the platoon, Spc. Adam Winfield, sent Facebook messages to his parents, telling them his colleagues had slaughtered one civilian, were planning to kill more and had warned him to keep quiet about it.
His father notified a staff sergeant at Lewis-McChord, but no action was taken until May, when a witness in a drug investigation in the unit separately reported the deaths. Winfield is accused of participating in the final killing.
Morlock has given extensive statements claiming the murder plot was led by Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs of Billings, Mont.; Gibbs maintains the killings were legitimate.
Morlock told investigators he and Holmes shot Mudin without cause; Holmes says that he fired when Morlock told him to, believing that Morlock had perceived a legitimate threat.
Morlock's court martial was scheduled to begin Wednesday. He has agreed to plead guilty to murder, conspiracy and other charges and to testify against his co-defendants in exchange for a maximum sentence of 24 years in prison.
One of his lawyers, Geoffrey Nathan, said while Morlock might be "physically responsible" for his crimes, including actions depicted in the photograph, "the people who are morally responsible are the American leaders who have us in the wrong war at the wrong time."
In addition to the five soldiers charged in the deaths, seven soldiers in the platoon were charged with lesser crimes, including assaulting the witness in the drug investigation, drug use, firing on unarmed farmers and stabbing a corpse.
Associated Press writers Richard Lardner contributed from Washington, and Kirsten Grieshaber and Tomislav Skaro contributed from Berlin. In addition, The Seattle Times contributed to this report.