Wednesday, January 17, 2007

"Soldier Defense Can't Cite War Legality" (with video)

Fort Lewis, Washington (AP, with video from truthout):
An Army lieutenant who called the Iraq war illegal and refused to deploy cannot base his court-martial defense on the war's legality, a military judge has ruled.

Lawyers for 1st Lt. Ehren Watada planned to argue at the Feb. 5 trial that the war was illegal because it violated Army regulations that wars must be waged in accordance with the United Nations charter.

But in a ruling released Tuesday, Lt. Col. John Head said "whether the war is lawful" is a political question that could not be judged in a military court.
Watada, 28, is charged with missing troop movement last year. He is also accused of conduct unbecoming an officer for statements he made to journalists and at a veterans convention. He faces up to six years in prison.

Head also rejected lawyers' claims that Watada's First Amendment rights shielded him from charges stemming from his criticism of the war. Head said there are limits to the free-speech rights of military personnel.

"We have been stripped of every defense," said Eric A. Seitz, Watada's lawyer. "This is a disciplinary system, not a justice system. Otherwise, we would have been entitled to defend ourselves."

Army officials said in a statement they had full confidence in the military-justice system to ensure that Watada gets a fair trial.

Watada, a Hawaii native, refused to go to Iraq last June with his unit, the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, after conducting research and deciding the war was illegal. He has said he would be willing to serve in Afghanistan or elsewhere.

An Army judge sided with government prosecutors Tuesday and rejected Lt. Ehren Watada's defense that he refused to deploy to Iraq because he believed the war is illegal.

The judge, Lt. Col. John Head, also denied Watada's motion to dismiss four of the five charges against him on the grounds that he was exercising his right to free speech.

Watada's lawyer said he was "disgusted" at the rulings and said they leave little room for argument when the former Stryker artillery officer's court-martial begins Feb. 5 at Fort Lewis.

"I'm appalled, but not surprised," defense attorney Eric Seitz said. "We'll have a hearing, a couple people will testify, the government will make their argument, and everybody will fall in line, because that's what happens in military cases."

Watada, 28, faces up to six years in prison if convicted of one count of missing movement and four counts of conduct unbecoming an officer.

The Army filed the charges after Watada publicly refused to go to Iraq in June with his unit from the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. The 4,000-soldier brigade is currently operating in Baghdad.

The Army issued a brief press release Tuesday evening announcing Head's decisions, reached after a daylong hearing Jan. 4. A Fort Lewis spokesman said prosecutors would not comment.

Seitz released copies of Head's two three-page orders. (To read them, see FOB Tacoma at

Seitz had hoped the judge would allow him to present a "Nuremberg defense," derived from the post-World War II tribunals that established a soldier has an obligation to disobey an unlawful order.

But Head wrote that the legality of the Iraq war is a political question and not one for the courts.

And past cases have established that a soldier's motives are irrelevant when he or she is charged with missing movement, the judge ruled.

Seitz had argued for dismissal of the conduct unbecoming charges on the grounds that the statements were protected by Watada's First Amendment rights.

At a press conference, in interviews and in a speech at a Veterans for Peace convention in Seattle, Watada condemned the Bush administration for what he called "a betrayal of the trust of the American people."

"And these lies were a betrayal of the trust of the military and the soldiers," he said.

Head cited previous cases in the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces that held service members' free-speech rights are limited.
Howie P.S.: Truthout's Geoffrey Millard interviews Lieutenant Ehren Watada's
parents on the eve of his court-martial. They spoke about their son and his
courage as he faces the fight of his life.

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