SEATTLE: A photograph of a US soldier smiling as he posed with the bloodied and partially naked corpse of an Afghan civilian was among those published digitally Sunday by a German news organization, despite attempts by Army officials to keep them under wraps as part of a war crimes probe.
The photos published by Der Spiegel 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.
Officials involved in the courts-martial had issued a strict protective order, seeking to severely limit access to the photographs due to their sensitive nature. Some defense teams had been granted copies but were not allowed to disseminate them.
It was not immediately known how Der Spiegel obtained copies.
One of the published photographs shows a key figure in the investigation, Cpl. Jeremy Morlock, grinning as he lifts the head of a corpse by the hair. Der Spiegel identified the body as that of Gul Mudin, whom Morlock was charged with killing on Jan. 15, 2010, in Kandahar Province.
Another photo shows Pvt. 1st Class Andrew Holmes holding the head of the same corpse. His lawyer, Daniel Conway, said Sunday that Holmes was ordered ‘‘to be in the photo, so he got in the photo. That doesn’t make him a murderer.’’
The photo was taken while the platoon leader, Lt. Roman Ligsay, was present, Conway said. Ligsay has asserted his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in refusing to testify in the legal proceedings against his troops.
Conway sought copies of the photographs so that he could present them to a ballistics expert, who he argued might be able to tell whether the victim had been struck by the weapon Holmes was carrying. His request was rejected.
‘‘I’m very disappointed that in an American judicial proceeding, I have to get potentially exculpatory evidence from a German newspaper,’’ Conway said.
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.’’
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 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, who 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 for 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.