War objector pleads not guilty at court-martial

By Daisuke Wakabayashi
Reuters
Monday, February 5, 2007; 6:21 PM

FORT LEWIS, Wash (Reuters) - A U.S. Army officer who refused an order to deploy to Iraq, pleaded not guilty on Monday to several charges at a court-martial that calls into question the right of officers to speak out against the war.

First Lt. Ehren Watada, 28, faces a charge of missing movements when he refused to ship out to Iraq with his brigade last summer, and two charges of conduct unbecoming an officer for statements criticizing the war as illegal and immoral.

Watada, whose supporters say he is the first Army officer to publicly refuse to deploy to Iraq, could face up to four years in prison and a dishonorable discharge if he is convicted on all charges.

He refused conscientious-objector status, saying he would fight in Afghanistan but not Iraq.

On the first day of the court-martial in Fort Lewis, an Army base near Seattle, Watada explained that he saw the order to go to Iraq and support combat operations as illegal because the war itself was illegal.

"I had no other choice but to refuse the order," he said.

Watada had hoped to make his case against the war in court, but Lt. Col. John Head, the military judge presiding over the case, denied the defense's request to argue the legality of the war, saying the question cannot be answered in a military court.

Head denied the entire list of possible defense witnesses including constitutional law experts as not relevant to the case. He also limited what the defense could ask potential members of the military panel -- equivalent to a jury in civilian courts -- that will determine Watada's fate.

"It's become almost clear now that there is nothing for us to say in this courtroom," said Watada's attorney, Eric Seitz, who called the decisions "comical" and "atrocious."

There were heated exchanges between the judge and Watada's defense team. After one of Seitz's repeated objections to the judge's rulings, the judge told the lawyer to "leave the theatrics outside the courtroom."

Watada's supporters -- including actor and anti-war advocate Sean Penn -- and opponents rallied outside the gates of the Army base, waving banners and shouting.

The two charges of conduct unbecoming an officer stem from public comments Watada made encouraging soldiers "to throw down their weapons" to resist an authoritarian government at home.

Defense lawyers had intended to argue that Watada's comments were free speech protected under the U.S. Constitution. But the military judge decided before the court-martial that there are limits to an officer's free-speech rights.

A military panel will now decide if Watada's criticism of the war amounted to officer misconduct -- whether it posed a danger to the loyalty, discipline, mission and morale of the troops.

Watada, a native of Hawaii who served for a year in Korea, joined the Army in 2003 after the United States had already invaded Iraq. After returning to America, Watada began to question the reasons behind the U.S. involvement.

(Additional reporting by Rob Sorbo)




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