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Hearings set in Chinese-American soldier's alleged hazing death

Pvt. Danny Chen, 19, died of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound in Afghanistan, the Army says.

Legal proceedings will begin Sunday in the death of a Chinese-American soldier believed to have committed suicide in Afghanistan after allegedly being hazed by his fellow soldiers, the Army says, though the Asian-American community would like them held in the U.S. out of concerns for transparency.

The Article 32 hearings, which would determine whether there was enough evidence for a court-martial against the men, will run through about Feb. 20 at Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan, Sgt. 1st Class Alan G. Davis, an Army spokesman, said in an email.

Eight soldiers have been charged in connection with the death of Army Pvt. Danny Chen, 19, who died of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound on Oct. 3. Five of them were charged with involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide, thought to be the first time such charges have been brought in this type of case, said experts on hazing and on the military legal system.

Asian-American advocates and the family told Army officials during a meeting last week that they do not want the proceedings to take place overseas, citing the need for transparency and access.

“It’s imperative that, at the 32 hearings, that the top charges of negligent homicide and involuntary manslaughter are not dropped," Elizabeth OuYang, New York branch president of OCA, a national civil rights organization serving Asian Pacific Americans, said Friday. "What they did to Danny, drove Danny to his death, and a strong signal must be sent throughout the military that anyone will face these charges if they engage in this type of conduct.”

She added that the Article 32 hearings should be held in the U.S. since "it's based on what charges stick after the 32 hearings that form the grounds for the court-martial. If those top charges are dropped at the 32 hearings, the community will always feel that that process was compromised … especially because we did not have access to them.”

A judge, jury and defense and prosecution teams will be present in the courtroom during the public hearings, Davis said.

"Cases are routinely tried in theater [the operational area], and are routinely moved back to the United States for court-martial. This decision depends on several factors, including location of witnesses and other logistical considerations," he said.

Greg Rinckey, a former attorney with the U.S. Army's Judge Advocate General Corps, said the government didn't need to prove its whole case at the Article 32 hearing, just show there was enough evidence for the case to go forward.

“I think the question here is, there’s a leap," he said. "They want the jury or the panel to make a leap that this type of action by members of his unit basically ... made this soldier to commit suicide and that’s a hard leap.”

Rinckey thought the defense would likely try to get the tougher charges dropped.

"I think they [the prosecution] could prove it. I think it's difficult though,” he added.

The maximum punishment for involuntary manslaughter is 10 years and a dishonorable discharge, while negligent homicide is a dishonorable discharge and three years. Willful dereliction of duty carries a maximum punishment of a bad conduct discharge and 6 months confinement, Davis said.

Chen was found dead at a guard tower with his rifle lying next to him at Combat Outpost Palace in the Panjwa'i district of Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan.

According to investigators from the Regional Command-South, OuYang said, almost immediately after he arrived in mid-August, Chen, the only Chinese-American in his platoon, was required to do exercises that within a few days crossed over to alleged abuse. Some of it was inflicted by one soldier and some by a group of them, the investigators said.

OuYang said investigators found that Chen, among other things, had rocks thrown at him to simulate incoming artillery rounds, was subjected to racial slurs and was dragged out of his bed on Sept. 27 and over 50 meters of gravel for allegedly breaking a hot water pump. On the day of his death, he was made to crawl with all of his equipment about 100 meters over gravel while some of the suspects threw rocks at him after he forgot his helmet and a sufficient amount of water for duty.

Investigators found evidence that the platoon sergeant and the platoon leader -- the platoon's top two leaders -- were aware of the Sept. 27 attack and chose not to report it, OuYang said.

Attempts to reach attorneys for the defendants were not successful.

What happened to Chen, was "obviously disturbing and very insensitive and I think this is going to bolster the Army’s case, but of course … there’s always two sides to every story," Rinckey said. "I think there is going to be a defense here that this was a fragile soldier that cracked under the pressure of combat."

The eight soldiers have been assigned to a different forward operating base in Afghanistan, removed from active duty and placed under increased supervision of senior non-commissioned officers, Davis said.

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