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Court-martial begins over refusal of Iraq duty

Ehren Watada
1st Lt. Ehren Watada poses for a picture on Friday in his apartment in Lacey, Wash. Watada announced last June that he would refuse to go to Iraq with his unit. Now he faces four years in prison if convicted on one count of missing movement and two counts of conduct unbecoming an officer. John Froschauer / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The judge in the case against the first U.S. officer court-martialed for refusing to ship out for Iraq barred several experts in international and constitutional law from testifying Monday about the legality of the war.

First Lt. Ehren Watada, 28, of Honolulu is charged with missing movement for refusing to ship out with his unit, the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. He also faces charges of conduct unbecoming an officer for accusing the Army of war crimes and denouncing the administration for conducting an “illegal war” founded on “lies.”

As his court-martial began, military judge Lt. Col. John Head refused to allow almost all defense witnesses to take the stand. Head previously ruled that Watada’s attorney, Eric Seitz, could not debate the legality of the Iraq war in court.

If convicted, Watada —who pleaded not guilty Monday — could receive four years in prison and a dishonorable discharge. He has requested that his case be heard by a military panel of officers, the equivalent of a jury. It had not yet been selected by midday.

At one point, Seitz suggested Head could be committing judicial misconduct if he denied Seitz an opportunity to ask panel members biographical questions to determine any bias.

“If you are going to tie my hands and you are going to script these proceedings, then in my view we’re all wasting our time,” Seitz said.

The judge said Seitz would be allowed time to question panel members individually.

Although other officers have refused to deploy to Iraq, Watada is the first to be court-martialed. In 2005, Army Sgt. Kevin Benderman, an enlisted man, was sentenced to 15 months in prison and given a dishonorable discharge after refusing to go to Iraq.

Outside the base, a small group that included actor Sean Penn demonstrated in support of Watada. A few others demonstrated against him, including one man who carried a sign calling Watada a “weasel.”

Watada, who joined the Army in March 2003, has called the Iraq war “a horrible breach of American law” and said he has a duty to refuse illegal orders.

Army prosecutors have argued that Watada’s behavior was dangerous to the mission and morale of soldiers in Iraq.

“He betrayed his fellow soldiers who are now serving in Iraq,” Capt. Dan Kuecker said at one hearing.