AMMAN, Jordan – A judge presiding over the trial of a Jordanian soldier accused of killing three U.S. military trainers said Wednesday that the case is criminal and not related to terrorism.
The U.S. Army Green Berets were killed when their convoy came under fire at the entrance of an air base in southern Jordan in November.
Jordan, a close U.S. military ally, initially suggested the Americans triggered the shooting by disobeying orders of Jordanian troops at the gate to the base.
The claim was quickly disputed by the U.S. and then withdrawn. Some of the relatives of the slain soldiers sharply criticized Jordan's handling of the case and the investigation.
On Wednesday, the defendant, 1st Sgt. Marik al-Tuwayha, appeared in a military court in the Jordanian capital of Amman. He was dressed in the brown garb of prisoners, with shackles on his wrists and ankles, said Moussa Abdallat, a lawyer not connected to the case who was present in the courtroom.
Judge Mohammed al-Afif read the charges and then scheduled the next session for Sunday because the defense attorney had failed to attend.
The judge said he would appoint a lawyer if the soldier's attorney does not appear the next time.
If convicted, the defendant faces life in prison with hard labor, but not the death penalty, said the judge.
Al-Afif told reporters that the defendant "is a criminal but not a terrorist."
He said that the defendant "had no relation to any terror groups or extremist groups, and he did not have an extremist ideology." The judge did not elaborate.
There have been a number of shooting attacks on security compounds in Jordan, including one in 2015 at a police training center that killed five people, among them two U.S. trainers. Jordan has at times played down a possible connection to Islamic extremist groups, suggesting the assailants were lone wolves with personal problems.
Jordan is a member of a U.S.-led international military coalition against Islamic State extremists who control territory in Syria and Iraq, both neighbors of Jordan. It also faces a growing threat from home-grown Islamic extremists, who have carried out several attacks.
The decision to charge the soldier was welcomed by the bereaved parents who said it was a step in the right direction.
The U.S. army has named the soldiers as 27-year-old Staff Sgt. Matthew C. Lewellen, of Kirksville, Missouri; 30-year-old Staff Sgt. Kevin J. McEnroe of Tucson, Arizona, and 27-year-old Staff Sgt. James F. Moriarty of Kerrville, Texas.
A Jordanian government official said Tuesday that the trial would be closed, but al-Afif said proceedings would be open to the public.
He said the court will hear from 11 Jordanian witnesses.
Moriarty's father, James, expressed dismay Tuesday about not being informed about the start of the proceedings. Moriarty said he hoped to attend the trial if it is open.
The 70-year-old lawyer criticized Jordan's handling of the case, saying the authorities must have known from the start what had happened because they had a surveillance video.