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Judge Lets Charges against Army Officer Stand
Published on Thursday, January 18, 2006 by the San Francisco Chronicle
Judge Lets Charges against Army Officer Stand
Trial to proceed on refusal to deploy, criticism of Bush
by Bob Egelko
 

An Army officer who refused to go to Iraq can be prosecuted not only for missing a troop movement but also for conduct unbecoming an officer because he publicly criticized President Bush and questioned the war's legality, a military judge has ruled.


1st Lt. Ehren Watada joined the Army in 2003 but refused to go to Iraq, saying the war is illegal. Associated Press photo by Peter Haley
Such a challenge to the war could "prevent the orderly accomplishment of the mission or present a clear danger to loyalty, discipline, mission or morale of the troops,'' Army Lt. Col. John Head said Tuesday in refusing to dismiss charges against 1st Lt. Ehren Watada.

Head noted that "contemptuous speech by an officer directed at the president'' is grounds for prosecution under military law. He said it would be up to the jury at Watada's court-martial to decide whether his statements fell into those categories.

Head also said Watada was not entitled to a hearing on the legality of the Iraq war and had no right to defend his actions by arguing that they were motivated by his opposition to an illegal war. Those are political questions that a military court has no authority to consider, he said.

"What he's saying is that people in the military are not allowed to criticize their leaders, not allowed to criticize policy,'' Watada's lawyer, Eric Seitz, said Wednesday. He said the ruling was much more restrictive than past military court decisions on troops' right to voice dissent during wartime.

Watada's court-martial, with Head presiding, is scheduled to start Feb. 5 at Fort Lewis, Wash., where Watada is based. Seitz said the ruling guaranteed a conviction on the charge of missing a troop movement and would make it hard to defend Watada against four charges of conduct unbecoming an officer, based on the officer's public statements. Watada faces up to six years in prison if convicted of all charges.

"I don't want my client sitting in jail while we litigate in civilian courts, all the way up to the Supreme Court, but that may be what we have to do,'' Seitz said.

In a statement released Wednesday by organizers of a "citizens' tribunal'' on the legality of the war, scheduled for this weekend in Tacoma, Wash., Watada said he stood by his belief that "this war is illegal and immoral. Everything I've done since I announced publicly why I'm refusing to go to this war is an attempt to appeal to the American people to fulfill their civic obligations.''

The Army did not comment on the ruling, issuing only a general statement that the military justice system "affords soldiers extensive rights to ensure fair and impartial investigations and trials, just as in the civil system.''

Watada, 28, a Hawaiian who enlisted in the Army in 2003, refused to accompany his armored infantry unit to Iraq in June. He was the first commissioned U.S. officer to take such a stance.

The Army rejected his offers to fight in Afghanistan instead or resign his commission, and has also turned down an offer of a six-month sentence and a dishonorable discharge for missing a troop movement, Seitz said.

The charges of conduct unbecoming an officer are based on Watada's public statements and press interviews.

In an interview with Oakland reporter Sarah Olson, published by the Web site truthout.org in June, Watada spoke of the "deception the Bush administration used to initiate and process this war,'' which he said made him "ashamed of wearing the uniform.''

The Army has subpoenaed Olson and another reporter, Gregg Kakesako of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, to testify at the court-martial that they had quoted Watada accurately. Olson has said she is reluctant to testify against someone she interviewed, particularly in a case involving freedom of speech.

But Head's refusal to dismiss the speech-related charges means the reporters may have to decide whether to comply with the subpoenas or face imprisonment.

©2007 San Francisco Chronicle

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