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Mistrial declared because soldier believes war in Iraq is a war crime
By Daisuke Wakabayashi
February 7, 2007

FORT LEWIS, Washington (Reuters) - A military judge declared a mistrial on Wednesday in the court-martial of a U.S. Army officer, who publicly refused to fight in Iraq and criticized the war.

First Lt. Ehren Watada had faced up to four years in prison and a dishonorable discharge if found guilty on a charge of missing movements for not deploying to Iraq and two charges of conduct unbecoming an officer for his criticism of the war.

Lt. Col. John Head, the military judge, declared a mistrial after throwing out a "stipulation of fact" -- an agreement over certain facts of the trial -- that forced the government to ask the judge for a mistrial instead of arguing its entire case again.

The judge said he could not accept the stipulation, because it amounts to a confession to the missing movements charge when Watada, 28, stated he is not guilty.

At the center of the dispute is the defense's assertion that Watada would not go to Iraq because he considered it an unlawful order that would make him party to war crimes and as result, it was not his duty to obey it.

"There is a material misunderstanding over what this stipulation is," said Head.

He set a new trial date for the week of March 19, but agreed the timing would be subject to change.

Watada, whose supporters say is the first commissioned Army officer to publicly refuse to serve in Iraq, agreed to the stipulation of fact before the trial began in exchange for the government dropping two additional charges of conduct unbecoming an officer.

In the stipulation, Watada said he did not board the plane with the rest of his unit to Iraq and admitted to making public statements criticizing the war. He does not dispute the facts, but said it was not an admission of guilt.

When asked by the judge if he thought it was his duty to board the aircraft to Iraq, Watada said no. "I felt the order was illegal," said Watada wearing his dark-green dress uniform in the courtroom.

The judge's objection to the stipulation of fact was first raised after the defense asked him to deliver a special instruction in addition to the standard directions given to military panel members before convening to decide a verdict.

The request raised an apparent disagreement between the government and defense over the nature of the stipulation.

Watada does not deny that he refused to go to Iraq, criticized the war and accused U.S. President George W. Bush's administration of deceiving the American people to enter into a war of aggression.

The defense had aimed to show that Watada acted on principle and tried to avoid a public confrontation with the Army by offering to resign his commission or fight elsewhere.

© Reuters 2007. All Rights Reserved.

Original Text