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First military officer to refuse deployment appears in court
The Guardian (UK)
Mark Tran/S Warren/AP
January 4, 2007

Lieutenant Ehren Watada, the only US military officer to refuse deployment to Iraq, is due to appear in court today for a pre-trial hearing at Fort Lewis in the state of Washington.

Lt Watada, the first military officer charged with public dissent since 1965, faces charges of "missing movement" and "conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman". If convicted, he could spend up to six years in prison.

At today's hearing, defence lawyers and prosecutors are expected to file several motions in preparation for his court-martial. The legal preliminaries already have the makings of a media event.

Peace activists, international law experts and war resisters past and present are girding themselves for events designed to drum up support for Lt Watada, recently described by Rolling Stone as "one of this year's greatest mavericks".

In many respects, Lt Watada is just the kind of officer the US army wants, so his act of dissent is doubly embarrassing. A star student at Pacific University, in Hawaii, he enlisted after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.

After officer training, he was deployed to South Korea, where he served with distinction. Knowing he would eventually be deployed to Iraq, Lt Watada began reading and came to the conclusion that the war was both illegal and unconstitutional.

From January until June, he requested to be reassigned, volunteering to serve in Afghanistan or even be discharged. When he had exhausted all alternatives, Lt Watada refused to go to Iraq with his 4,000 strong Stryker brigade unit.

That led to the charge of "missing movement". The charges of unbecoming conduct stem partly from statements Lt Watada made at a Veterans for Peace convention in August near Seattle.

"This administration used us for rampant violations of time-tested laws banning torture and degradation of prisoners of war. Though the American soldier wants to do right, the illegitimacy of the occupation itself, the policies of this administration and the rules of engagement of desperate field commanders will ultimately force them to be party to war crimes," Lt Watada said at the time.

The court martial of Lt Watada has also raised first amendment free speech issues as the army has subpoenaed two journalists - though there are signs that the army is backing down from its demand that one of them, Sarah Olson, testify at today's pre-trial hearing.

Ms Olson interviewed Lt Watada last May. The army says statements he made during the interview constitute one charge of conduct unbecoming an officer, and wants Ms Olson to verify those statements in a military court.

Another journalist, Dahr Jamail, is on the prosecution witness list for his reporting on Lt Watada's address to the Veterans for Peace convention last August. The army says it wants him to authenticate his reporting of the event.

Mr Jamail says: "I don't believe that reporters should be put in the position of having to participate in a prosecution. This is particularly poignant in this case, where journalists would be used to build a case against free speech for military personnel."

Supporters of Lt Watada plan to turn the tables on the military by putting the increasingly unpopular war on trial. The Evergeen state college Tacoma campus plans a "citizens' hearing on the legality of US actions in Iraq" later this month.

The organisers say those planning to "testify" against the government include Daniel Ellsberg, a former military analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam war, Denis Halliday, a former UN assistant secretary general who coordinated Iraq humanitarian aid, and Eman Khammas (by video), an Iraqi human rights advocate.

Lt Watada remains on desk duty at Fort Lewis and is confined to the state of Washington until his court martial is scheduled.

Original Text