President Trump has pardoned Michael Behenna, a former Army lieutenant who served five years in prison for the murder of an Iraqi prisoner in 2008.
Behenna, who was an Army Ranger in the 101st Airborne Division, was convicted of unpremeditated murder in a combat zone and sentenced to 25 years after killing Ali Mansur, a detainee and suspected al-Qaeda member. Behenna, who stripped Mansur naked, interrogated him without authorization and then shot him twice, has claimed repeatedly that he was acting in self-defense.
In a Monday evening statement, the White House announced Trump’s decision to sign an executive grant of clemency, which amounts to a full pardon, citing support from the military community and Oklahoma elected officials, some of whom had recently renewed a public campaign for the president’s order. Behenna, the statement said, was “entirely deserving.” However, some condemned the move as mercy for a man who showed none to Mansur.
The former soldier, now 35, fought to overturn his conviction on the grounds that the prosecution had hid evidence that would have benefited his case. The judge denied the effort, but Behenna’s sentence was ultimately reduced to 15 years, and he was released on parole in 2014. Before Trump’s pardon, Behenna faced another five years of parole.
U.S. forces took Mansur into custody in 2008 shortly after a roadside bomb struck a convoy traveling north of Baghdad, killing two of Behenna’s friends and platoon members. An intelligence report linked Mansur to the attack, but he was later freed when the military couldn’t find conclusive evidence of his involvement, according to Behenna’s pardon application.
Behenna was then ordered to transport Mansur back to his village. Instead, Behenna took him to a secluded railroad culvert and demanded more information from him. At his 2009 court-martial, Behenna said Mansur had lunged for his weapon during the impromptu interrogation.
“I was scared Ali Mansur was going to take my weapon and use it against me,” he said then. “This happened very fast.”
Since his conviction, Behenna, an Oklahoma native, has won the support of former governor Mary Fallin (R), state Attorney General Mike Hunter (R), and more than 30 retired generals and admirals — among them Trump’s former special envoy for the Persian Gulf, retired Gen. Anthony Zinni.
Late Monday, Sens. James Lankford and James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, both Republicans, praised Trump’s decision.
“I’m grateful that the long road for Michael Behenna and his family has finally come to a joyous end,” Lankford said in the joint statement. “Michael now gets a clean slate and a second chance at life.”
In a 2018 letter to Trump, when Hunter first asked the president to pardon Behenna, he conceded that some of Behenna’s actions were “undoubtedly wrong and condemnable.”
“But that does not mean he deserves the label ‘murderer,’ ” Hunter wrote, “or the lifelong punishment and stigma that come with being a federal criminal.”
On Monday, Hunter applauded Trump and said that Behenna has “admitted to his mistakes, has learned from them and deserves to move on.”
For others, the pardon represents an abdication of the government’s responsibility to uphold human rights.
“This pardon is a presidential endorsement of a murder that violated the military’s own code of justice,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, in a statement. “Trump, as Commander-in-Chief, and top military leaders should prevent war crimes, not endorse or excuse them.”
Behenna recently told The Washington Post that he was hopeful but cautious about his chances of being pardoned.
John Richter, who represented Behenna, said, “We know we have a president who is very sympathetic to the very difficult situation that soldiers, sailors and Marines were put in during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.”
The pardon is the eighth Trump has issued and the first since July, when he granted clemency to the father-and-son cattle ranchers whose case helped spark the 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon.
This story has been updated with a statement from the ACLU.
Ian Shapira contributed to this report.