A year of fear and anxiety will reach a climax tomorrow when US Army private Jeremy Hinzman walks into a Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board hearing to argue that he should be permitted to stay in Canada as a refugee after deserting his post last December.
The outlook for the soldier is bleak, however, as his defense has been hit by major setbacks. Twice the hearing has been postponed while the Canadian ministry of justice sought more time to prepare and, crucially, the Crown has succeeded in having Hinzman's principal argument - that the Iraq war was illegal - ruled irrelevant.
If the court rules against him, it is likely the 25-year-old native of South Dakota will face deportation back to the US where he will be tried as a deserter. The penalty for desertion is death.
Hinzman told the Sunday Herald: "No doubt my heart will be beating a little bit when I walk in the room, but I know why I am here and why I feel we should be able to stay."
If the case fails, it will be a blow to a string of other deserters seeking asylum in Canada.
Last December, Hinzman packed his belongings and drove across the Canadian border with his wife Nga Nguyen and infant son, leaving his post at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
The decision to throw out the 'illegal war' defense came as a shock to Hinzman and his lawyer, Jeffrey House, a former US draft dodger from the 1970s.
"It's a setback but its also an appealable point," said House, who believes an appeal court will, if necessary, take a different view of the question of the war's legality. House also would not rule out that political pressure has been applied from behind the scenes by the US.
Unable to argue that the Iraq war is illegal, Hinzman and his lawyer have another plan of attack. "We are flying up a marine staff sergeant who served in Iraq and shot civilians at demonstrations and all kinds of things," Hinzman revealed, but would not name him.
"Since we can't discuss legality we are going to try to show that the atrocious acts that are taking place in Iraq are not anomalies or isolated incidents but part of a plan of attack, if you will. I think we stand on solid ground, in terms of what is right and what is wrong. Obviously not being able to argue that this is an illegal war is a big setback because that is essentially the whole reason I am here."
President George W Bush visited Canada for two days last week and held talks with Prime Minister Paul Martin, but the visit was marred by anti-war demonstrations.
Against such a backdrop, Hinzman is seen as a symbol of the anti-war movement. Should he succeed, other deserters will no doubt flee to Canada, said House, who has earned notoriety over the case.
"There are three people who have declared themselves and they are awaiting a hearing: Jeremy, Brandon Haughey and a guy named David Sanders," said House. "There is also another fellow I will be meeting, who is telling me he is absolutely bound and determined to make a claim. That makes four.
"There are also three I am aware of who are deserters, who have some claim to Canadian citizenship."
Quite apart from his defense of these individuals, House said he regularly receives e-mails from US military personnel all over the world who are seeking advice on how to get into Canada. A handful of other deserters have even walked into his Toronto office and asked for help. House believes they will also eventually declare themselves political refugees and follow Hinzman's lead.
Hinzman said: "If we succeed it will be a precedent and would perhaps open the doors to people who are considering a similar course of action."
Five days a week Hinzman goes running in Toronto with friends and spends time with his son Liam at a nearby park or local book store. Last week, he applied for a work permit as the couple's savings, accrued from two years of service in the US 82nd Airborne, are being eaten up. Until his case is settled, he is not entitled to work unless they cannot support themselves.
Support for Hinzman continues to grow. A group, calling itself the War Resister Support Campaign, plans a vigil outside the building while the hearing takes place, with similar gatherings planned in other major urban centers across Canada. Letters of support have also poured in from around the world, including one from the actress Susan Sarandon, who called Hinzman a hero for refusing to go to war.
Hinzman also says he has recently met an unnamed celebrity musician who is helping to pay his legal costs.
He added: "I didn't want to be implicit in a criminal enterprise and hence a war criminal. It has been evident in light of Abu Ghraib and other things that the soldiers who pay the price for the policies that come from on high are the enlisted soldiers."
Three days have been set aside for the hearing, with a decision due in January. Pentagon officials have noted that although the penalty for desertion is death, it is more likely he would receive a lengthy prison term. Regardless, Hinzman has vowed not to return to the US.
© 2004 newsquest (sunday herald) limited