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Judge Rules Army Cannot Retry Iraq War Critic Lt. Ehren Watada
October 27, 2008
Iraq war objector Lt. Ehren Watada cannot be retried by the Army on charges of missing his unit’s deployment and criticizing President George W. Bush and the war, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.
U.S. District Judge Benjamin H. Settle said retrying Watada would violate the soldier’s constitutional protection against double jeopardy.
“He dismissed the heart of [the Army’s] case,” said Watada’s lawyer Jim Lobsenz said of the judge’s ruling. “We’re very pleased. It’s taken a long time.”
Watada faced a court-martial last year on charges of “missing movement” to Iraq and two counts of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. The latter two charges stemmed from public statements critical of the war Watada made at a Veterans for Peace rally at the University of Washington in August 2006.
Watada was also charged with two separate counts of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman based on interviews he gave to the media in which he was critical of the war and Bush. Those charges were dropped in exchange for Watada signing a stipulation agreement acknowledging that he gave the interviews.
The court-martial ended in a mistrial in February 2007.
However, Judge Settle said Tuesday that the military trial court can still pursue conduct unbecoming an officer charges against Watada in which Watada was interviewed by reporters when he denounced Bush and the Iraq war.
In a statement late Tuesday, a Fort Lewis spokesman said the base’s commanding general, Lt. Gen. Charles H. Jacoby Jr., had not yet had a chance to review the ruling in depth.
“Once that review is complete, he will be able to make a decision on the way forward with this case,” the spokesman said.
Watada was a member of the Army’s First Stryker Brigade Combat Team at Fort Lewis when, on June 22, he became the first commissioned officer to refuse assignment with the unit to Iraq.
Redacted documents outlining the charges against Watada quoted him as saying that President Bush lied about the reasons the US went to war in Iraq and that the occupation was illegal.
“As I read about the level of deception the Bush administration used to initiate and process this war, I was shocked. I became ashamed of wearing the uniform,” Watada said in an interview with published by Truthout.org on June 7, 2005.
Lt. Col. John Head, the military judge who presided over Watada’s court-martial last year, declared a mistrial because military prosecutors and Watada’s defense attorney could not reach an agreement regarding the characterization of a stipulation agreement Watada signed before the start of his court-martial. The judge characterized the stipulation agreement as an admission of guilt by Watada for “missing movement” and making statements against the Iraq war.
Head said he wanted to question Watada regarding the agreement to gain a better understanding of what Watada’s state of mind was when he signed the agreement, but Watada’s attorney Eric Seitz would not allow the judge to question his client unless he knew the questions in advance. Head said if he could not question Watada to ensure the accuracy of the document he signed prior to the start of the court-martial, he would have to throw out the agreement, meaning the charges against Watada would become null and void.
Seitz said the stipulation Watada signed was by no means an admission of guilt. Rather, it was a statement of fact that his client believed the Iraq war was illegal, and that he refused to deploy to the region with his unit because of his beliefs.
Seitz said his client’s comments were protected free speech, and he was shocked that Watada was charged with anything other than missing a troop movement.
The charges filed against Watada marked the first time in 41 years that the military has used the charge of conduct unbecoming an officer to prosecute an officer’s public statements. Usually, a conduct-unbecoming case involves more-serious crimes, such as rape, sexual harassment, or manslaughter. The last time a military officer was charged with public dissent was in 1965, when Lieutenant Henry Howe criticized US foreign policy during the Vietnam War.
Last year, Watada discussed his decision to publicly oppose the war during a speech at the Church of the Crossroads in Moiliili, Hawaii. Speaking to a crowd of about 350, Watada said he struggled with leaving his fellow soldiers behind, but ultimately he needed to take a stand because, as an officer, he could not consciously order soldiers under his command to die for a war he believes is wrong and illegal.
“I hated to leave my troops, but something had to be done to stop this insanity,” he said. “How could I order men to die for something I believe is wrong? Wearing the uniform is not, and is never, an excuse.”
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