Federal judge stops second court-martial

October 24, 2008

Jesse Hagopian reports on a victory for Lt. Ehren Watada, the first officer to publicly resist the U.S. war on Iraq.

EHREN WATADA scored a victory in the war he is willing to fight--the battle for the right of a soldier not to participate in immoral wars and occupations.

A federal judge ruled on October 21 that Watada, a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, can't be subjected by the military to a second court-martial trial on three of five counts resulting from his decision to refuse to deploy to Iraq with the Fort Lewis Third Stryker Brigade.

Judge Benjamin Settle's decision cited the constitutional protection against "double jeopardy"--that is, being tried twice for the same alleged crime. But the ruling left open the prospect of a second prosecution on two other counts of conduct unbecoming an officer, based on Watada's interviews with the media.

At one time, Watada faced up to six years in prison. Now, the maximum sentence he could face would be two years.

As James Lobsenz, Watada's attorney, pointed out in an interview with the Seattle Times, it is unusual for a federal court to intervene in an Army court-martial process.

Some 1,000 people turned out at the gates of Fort Lewis to support Lt. Ehren Watada as his court-martial began
Some 1,000 people turned out at the gates of Fort Lewis to support Lt. Ehren Watada as his court-martial began (Jason Farbman | SW)

Watada became the first commissioned officer to refuse to deploy to Iraq when he announced to a 2006 Veterans for Peace convention that he would refuse orders. "To me, leading soldiers into battle in Iraq means to participate in a war that I believe to be illegal," Watada later told a military judge. "It is the duty of a soldier to speak out against war if he knows that war is wrong."

Protest played an important role in drawing attention to Watada's case in the months before his first trial in February 2007, which ended in a mistrial. Antiwar activists rallied around the country in support of Watada, with 1,000 people turning out to support him at a demonstration near the gates of Fort Lewis during his trial.

The month before, at a January 27 demonstration in Seattle, some 3,000 demonstrators shut down a military recruiting center in the Central District, and then continued on to the Langston Hughes Performing Art Center to hear from Watada. There, Watada said:

Our country is being led in the wrong direction--an illegal and immoral direction. But to know our country was sent to war and devastated another civilization over falsehood is something I will never stand for. There are some things that we just cannot do. Without principles, without sacrificing for what we believe, what is the point? Send me to prison, torture me or kill me, I will never enable or condone the waging of war on another country over lies.

Antiwar activists are committed to making sure that Watada not only doesn't see a day behind bars, but is celebrated as a hero for his courage to resist the war on Iraq.

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