The son of a revolutionary Nicaraguan musician -- who says he
deserted from the U.S. Army to avoid killing civilians or torturing prisoners
in Iraq -- is the first war veteran to face an American court-martial for
refusing further duty in that conflict-torn country.
Army Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia, 28, whose jury trial began Wednesday in
Fort Stewart, Ga., also is the first soldier to file for conscientious
objector status since the war began.
If found guilty of desertion, Mejia faces a year in prison and a bad-
Mejia's father, Carlos Mejia Godoy, is Nicaragua's most famous
singer/songwriter. He participated as a cultural ambassador in the Sandinista
revolution that overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in 1979 and wrote the
Sandinista hymn. The soldier's uncle, Luis Enrique Mejia Godoy, also is an
internationally acclaimed singer/songwriter. The brothers have played in the
Bay Area several times.
Mejia's older brother, San Francisco resident Carlos Alexis Mejia, says
Camilo did not enlist in the Army in 1995 to defy his revolutionary father.
"He just wanted to get his education paid for," said Carlos Alexis, a 31-
year-old rock guitarist. He is an aspiring poet, a vegetarian, a peaceful guy.
It's weird for us."
Mejia is a dual citizen of Nicaragua and Costa Rica, the latter his
mother's birthplace. He settled in Miami in the early 1990s and, like about 40,
000 American soldiers, is not a U.S. citizen but is a permanent resident.
Mejia is restricted to the Fort Stewart base and is barred from speaking
with individual reporters. But one of his attorneys, Tod Ensign, says his
client deserted during a furlough in the United States after witnessing
American soldiers kill a 10-year-old boy and after being ordered to "soften
up" prisoners for interrogation at al Assad airbase near the Baghdad airport
by using sleep-deprivation tactics on blindfolded Iraqis.
"The fighting and killing of civilians and illegal interrogations were
the primary reasons" for Mejia's desertion, said Ensign, who also is the
director of Citizen Soldier, a nonprofit GI advocacy group based in New York.
Former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, another Mejia lawyer, said
that in at least one instance, a pistol was cocked next to prisoners' heads.
"We're prosecuting soldiers over there for the very thing we're prosecuting
him (Mejia) for not going back over there to do," Clark told reporters during
a break in the day-long hearing.
Ensign and Clark tried to make Mejia's court-martial a test case for
soldiers who are adamant about avoiding duties that would constitute war
crimes. "When you don't respect international standards, the kind of things
that happened at Abu Ghraib happen," he said.
The judge, however, Col. Gary Smith, ruled Wednesday that the special
court-martial would be limited to whether Mejia deserted when he refused to
return to duty.
On Wednesday, co-counsel Louis Font also argued that the military should
not have accepted Mejia because a 19th century treaty between the United
States and Costa Rica exempts Costa Rican citizens from "compulsory service"
in the U.S. military. Judge Smith denied that motion as well after Capt. A. J.
Balbo, the lead prosecutor, said Mejia never requested an exemption before his
court-martial and voluntarily went to fight in Iraq, where he accepted a
Mejia is a reservist with the Florida National Guard; he served in the
Sunni triangle from April to October last year with Charlie Company of the
124th Infantry Regiment. When he returned on a two-week furlough, he went into
hiding for five months before surrendering in Massachusetts with the help of
the Peace Abbey, an anti-war organization.
When he returned to Florida in March, he told reporters: "I don't think
we're fighting terror in Iraq. I think we're fighting a war for oil, based on
lies -- lies about weapons of mass destruction, and connections between
Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda.''
He also told the Miami Herald: "I am not against the military. The
military has been my family. My commanders are not evil but this war is evil.
I did not sign up for the military to go halfway around the world to be an
instrument of oppression.''
Teresa Panepinto, the GI rights program coordinator for the Oakland-based
Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, says the Mejia case may be a
harbinger of things to come. She says that 25 percent of the 3,000 calls her
group's hot line receives monthly are questions about the consequences of
going AWOL. Fourteen percent are about how to apply for conscientious objector
"We are hearing more and more from soldiers who have come back from Iraq,
" said Panepinto, whose nonprofit organization counsels members of the armed
forces on how to get out of the military. "The vast majority seem to be
severely traumatized and looking at their options."
Several have even left for Canada, conjuring up images of Vietnam.
Last January, Army Pvt. Jeremy Hinzman from the 82nd Airborne Division
became the first American soldier to seek asylum in Canada. In March, he was
followed by another 82nd Airborne private, Brandon Hughey. They have been
granted temporary residence in Canada, and hearings will be held on their
cases this summer.
Army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Pamela Hart said that since 2002, there have
been 88 requests for conscientious objector status, 48 of which were approved.
She also said the Army recorded 2,762 desertions last year, a significant drop
from 2002, when 4,007 deserted. "The numbers show that (the desertion rate) is
not based solely on being at war and that there are other issues," she said.
Carlos Alexis Mejia said his brother joined the Florida National Guard in
1998 following a three-year hitch with the Army and was several months away
from graduating from the University of Miami with a degree in psychology, and
completing his eight-year military obligation, when the United States invaded
Attorney Ensign says Mejia went to Iraq hoping he would be home in less
than three months because noncitizens are not allowed to serve in the Army
longer than eight years. "He had 70 days left and figured he would keep his
head down until they shipped him home," said Ensign.
But, like tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers, Mejia got caught up in the
Pentagon's "stop-loss" orders, which keep troops in Iraq to stave off troop
depletion through retirement and discharge.
In March, Carlos Alexis Mejia flew to Massachusetts to join his famous
father at a pacifist service in support of his kid brother. Always the
revolutionary, Mejia Godoy performed one of his most well-known compositions -
- "Missa Campesina," or "Peasant Mass," a piece that draws on the ideas of
liberation theology and views religion in Latin America from the perspective
of the poor and the oppressed.
"My father knows that Camilo enlisted to further his education," said
Carlos Alexis Mejia, whose band, La Raza Oculta, will perform a benefit
concert on June 5 at the Women's Building in San Francisco to raise money for
his brother's defense fund. "He is proud that his son is willing to stand by
his principles and face whatever consequences."
©2004 San Francisco Chronicle