Victory for Iraq war refuser

Supporters of First Lt. Ehren Watada rejoiced over a federal judge’s injunction last week barring a new court-martial for the officer who refused to serve in Iraq. But they also urged stepped-up pressure to drop all charges and release Watada from the Army with an honorable discharge.

Watada is the first U.S. commissioned officer to publicly refuse to go to Iraq. Last year, after criticizing the Iraq war as an illegal occupation, he refused to deploy there with his Stryker Brigade. The Army rejected his offer to serve instead in Afghanistan.

Because he spoke out publicly against the Iraq war, the Army added the charge of conduct unbecoming an officer.

U.S. District Court Judge Benjamin Settle issued a temporary injunction barring a second court-martial. The judge said Watada would probably be successful in asserting that his Fifth Amendment rights would be violated by being tried twice for the same crime, otherwise known as double jeopardy.

Settle wrote in the decision, “The same Fifth Amendment protections are in place for military service members as are afforded to civilians.”

The Army quickly announced it would file additional briefs before the judge issues a final ruling.

Watada attorney Kenneth Kagan called the injunction “an enormous victory,” but warned that the case is not yet closed.

Michael McPhearson, executive director of Veterans for Peace, told the World, “We think Lt. Watada shouldn’t have been tried in the first place, and we don’t want him to be tried again.”

“We’re very happy with the decision,” said Peter Yamamoto, a San Francisco-based member of the Watada Support Committee. “However,” he added, “it’s not over. It’s very important to keep up the pressure.”

Yamamoto said the support committee is organizing vigils on the first and third Saturdays of the month. Details are at www.thankyoult.org.

Watada’s first court-martial, earlier this year, ended in a mistrial when the military judge ruled that a stipulation both sides had earlier accepted, stating the officer had missed his deployment, constituted a guilty plea. Watada and his attorneys sought to continue the first trial but the military judge refused. They then argued a second trial would violate the lieutenant’s constitutional rights.

As a second court-martial approached, Watada’s appeal to the military’s highest court went unanswered. His attorneys then appealed to the federal court for a stay. Judge Settle’s response marked a rare civilian intervention into military court proceedings.

Settle, who served as a military lawyer in the 1970s, was recently appointed to the federal bench by President Bush.

Though Watada’s term of military service officially ended last December, the Army has not released him. He is now performing administrative duties at Fort Lewis, Wash.

mbechtel @pww.org