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Court-Martial Begins for War-Resisting Soldier

[Updated information: A mistrial was declared on 7 February 2007 in the court-martial case of the first U.S. Army officer to openly refuse deployment to Iraq. A judge cancelled the case on the basis that a document signed by First Lieutenant Ehren Watada could contradict initial reasons he gave for refusing to go to Iraq. The judge set a new date of 19 March 2007 for the trial at Fort Lewis in the northwestern U.S. state of Washington.]

A U.S. army officer faces up to four years in prison for refusing to deploy with his unit to Iraq, and for publicly criticizing the U.S.-led war in Iraq. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports the court-martial of First Lieutenant Ehren Watada, which started Monday at Fort Lewis, Washington, pits the right to free speech against the need for military discipline.

A 28-year-old native of Hawaii, Lieutenant Watada, volunteered for the army in 2003, after he finished college. He served in Korea, but facing deployment to Iraq, says he concluded that the U.S. role there is immoral and illegal. He offered to serve in Afghanistan, but refused to go to Iraq when his brigade was sent in June. He also spoke publicly against the war in Iraq.

Kathleen Duignan of the National Institute of Military Justice in Washington D.C. says this case will test the limits of free speech for those in uniform.

"The refusal to go to Iraq is something that the military could have proceeded with, without much fanfare," said Kathleen Duignan. "However, they decided to add on the charge that questions the speech that Lieutenant Watada engaged in, and that might be the aspect of this case that is more interesting."

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a legal brief supporting Lieutenant Watada on the two charges that focus on his statements. These charges accuse him of conduct unbecoming an officer. ACLU spokesman Doug Honig says people in the military face some restrictions, but do not lose their right to freedom of speech.

"And we think that a soldier ought to be able to express his or her views on governmental policy in general, and in a specific war, without having to face court-martial for it," said Doug Honig. "What Watada is facing is a charge of conduct unbecoming an officer, and that is behavior which dishonors or disgraces an officer or seriously compromises his character. And the statements he made criticizing our policy in the Iraq war clearly did not do that."

James Carafano, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, says public debate over any war is a healthy thing in a democracy. But he says the law prevents a soldier from criticizing the government while in uniform.

Carafano spent 25 years in the U.S. Army, and believes restrictions on political speech by members of the armed forces are necessary.

"I had freedom of speech," said James Carafano. "I had every constitutional right. Now, what I could not do is wear a military uniform and say 'vote for Richard Nixon' or 'vote for George McGovern.' That's illegal. It is against the law. And that's the case here. You can have personal views. You can express them all you want. You can really say anything you want, but you cannot say them in an official capacity, and you cannot say them in a way that interferes with military effectiveness."

Lieutenant Watada's defenders say the soldier's comments did not interfere with military effectiveness, and that he felt honor-bound to speak in public as he did.

Kathleen Duignan of the National Institute of Military Justice says that for the military court, this is a question of law more than a question of conscience.

"What I think we are seeing in this case is that Lieutenant Watada has expressed the fact that he believes he is doing what is morally right," she said. "Of course, sometimes what is morally right and what is legally right may not necessarily intersect, and that is something that this case is going to explore."

A judge has already refused to allow Lieutenant Watada to base his defense on the argument that the war in Iraq is illegal.