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Military judge: objector can't raise questions about war legality

Associated Press | January 17, 2007

An Army officer cannot try to justify his refusal to report for duty in Iraq by questioning the legality of the war because that is a political issue, a military judge has ruled.

Citing federal court precedents in a ruling issued Tuesday, Lt. Col. John Head also rejected the claims of lawyers for 1st Lt. Ehren Watada who said the his First Amendment rights shielded the 28-year-old native of Hawaii from charges stemming from his criticism of the war.

There are limits to the free-speech rights of military personnel and a military panel should decide in a court-martial set to begin Feb. 5 whether Watada's criticism amounted to officer misconduct that could have endangered the morale, loyalty and discipline of troops, Head ruled.

"We have been stripped of every defense," Eric A. Seitz of Honolulu, Watada's civilian defense lawyer, told The Seattle Times. "This is a disciplinary system, not a justice system. Otherwise, we would have been entitled to defend ourselves."

Seitz had planned to argue that the war violated Army regulations that specify wars are to be waged in accordance with the United Nations charter.

Watada is charged with missing movement after refusing to deploy with his unit, the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. The Army also brought charges of conduct unbecoming an officer for statements he subsequently made to journalists and on Aug. 12 in a speech to the Veterans for Peace convention in Seattle.

"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," Watada said at the August gathering.

He could face as much as six years in prison two for failing to join his brigade in Iraq last June and four for four charges of conduct unbecoming an officer in his criticism of the war and how it has been conducted.

Head, a military judge who presided over at a pretrial hearing at which both sides made presentations earlier this month at this post south of Tacoma, found that "whether the war is lawful" is a political question that could not be judged in a military court.

In a statement accompanying the ruling, Army officials said they had full confidence in the military-justice system to ensure that Watada gets a fair trial.

 

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