Court-Martial Begins for War Objector

By MELANTHIA MITCHELL
The Associated Press
Monday, February 5, 2007; 9:53 PM

FORT LEWIS, Wash. -- The judge in the case against the first U.S. officer court-martialed for refusing to ship out for Iraq barred several experts in international and constitutional law from testifying Monday about the legality of the war.

1st Lt. Ehren Watada, 28, of Honolulu, is charged with missing movement for refusing to ship out with his unit, the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. He also faces charges of conduct unbecoming an officer for accusing the Army of war crimes and denouncing the administration for conducting an "illegal war" founded on "lies."

As his court-martial got under way, military judge Lt. Col. John Head refused to allow almost all defense witnesses to take the stand. Head previously ruled that Watada's attorney, Eric Seitz, could not debate the legality of the Iraq war in court.

If convicted, Watada could receive four years in prison and a dishonorable discharge. He has requested that his case be heard by a military panel of officers, the equivalent of a jury.

Panel selection began in the afternoon, with the defense and prosecution questioning a pool of 10 officers. Seven were ultimately chosen to sit on the panel.

On Tuesday, prosecutors were expected to call at least three witnesses as they try to prove that Watada's speech amounted to misconduct.

Seitz said he would call Watada and a character witness, an Army captain who has known Watada for about two years. The captain has been brought back from service in Iraq to testify, the lawyer said.

Although other officers have refused to deploy to Iraq, Watada is the first to be court-martialed. Army Sgt. Kevin Benderman, an enlisted man, served 13 months in prison and was dishonorably discharged after refusing to go to Iraq in 2005.

Outside the base, a small group that included actor Sean Penn demonstrated in support of Watada. A few others demonstrated against him, including one man who carried a sign calling Watada a "weasel."

Watada, who joined the Army in March 2003, has called the Iraq war "a horrible breach of American law" and said he has a duty to refuse illegal orders.

Army prosecutors have argued that Watada's behavior was dangerous to the mission and morale of soldiers in Iraq.

"He betrayed his fellow soldiers who are now serving in Iraq," Capt. Dan Kuecker said at one hearing.


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