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2004-05-19

Army Conscientious Objector Camilo Mejia Witnessed Torture of Iraqi Detainees in May 2003

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Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia faces court martial today for refusing to return to Iraq. He eventually applied for conscientious objector status in part because of the abuse of detainees he witnessed in Iraq, not in Abu Gharib but in another facility–Al Assad. We speak with his aunt Norma Castillo en route to the court martial proceedings in Fort Stewart, Georgia. [includes rush transcript]

In Baghdad, Specialist Jeremy Sivitsm pleaded guilty today to three counts of abuse during a court martial proceeding stemming from the Iraqi prison abuse scandal.

In a less covered court martial case, Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia is facing court martial today at Fort Stewart in Georgia for going AWOL for several months after he returned from Iraq. He eventually applied for conscientious objector status in part because of the abuse of detainees he witnessed in Iraq.

When he surrendered at Ft. Stewart on March 16, 2003, Mejia submitted a formal application for discharge as a conscientious objector to Major General William G. Webster, Jr., Commanding General of the base. On pages 29-32 of this application, Mejia provides details of the torture and abuse of detainees which he witnessed at Al Assad, in early May, 2003. Apparently, no one from General Webster’s staff has investigated these serious allegations during the six week period since they received the CO application.

  • Norma Castillo, Camilo Mejia’s aunt. She is en route to Fort Stewart in Georgia to attend her nephew’s court martial proceedings.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined by Camilo Mejia’s aunt, Norma Castillo, she is en route to Fort Stewart for her nephew’s Court-martial proceeding. Welcome to Democracy Now!

NORMA CASTILLO: Hi. How are you?

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Can you tell us about your nephew and why he went AWOL?

NORMA CASTILLO: Well, he decided that he didn’t want to go back to be part of this war. Like he has said before, he didn’t want to continue to be an instrument of violence, and be an instrument of peace, and these are his reasons why he decided not to go back to the war in Iraq. It’s an illegal war and it’s based on lies.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about his charges? I mean, we now — it is common currency of the papers to be talking about prisoner abuse, not when he deserted, though. Yet that is part of the reason he gave in his application for conscientious objector status for — saying he refused to return to Iraq. You can tell us which detention camp he worked in, and what his charges are?

NORMA CASTILLO: Well, he was there — let me — I’m reading here part of the document — part of C.O. application that I have right in front of me in which he is denouncing the abuses that he witnessed over there. They were at a place called Al-Assad Air Force Base. That’s where they were there in the first days of May. Let me just read a little bit of what he wrote here. That’s when — I remember that was the first time that we heard that the war was over. Later, there was a — they had to run a prisoner of war camp, but later on they told us we cannot call this a P.O.W. Camp because this facility did not comply with the international rules set by the Geneva Convention on how to run a P.O.W. Camp. They didn’t have the training — the proper training to take care of prisoners there. He said he saw prisoners being deprived of sleep. They were blindfolded, and you know, now one of the soldiers said that he was going to denounce that, but his Platoon Sergeant told him that — not to do anything, because that’s not going to change a thing. The only thing that this will do is to end his military career. So, just, the matter didn’t go any further than that. So this is what he’s writing in his C.O. Application which he handed in on March 16 when he surrendered. So that’s a long way before the abuses of the Iraqi prisoner scandal came about.

AMY GOODMAN: Now on March 16, your nephew, Sergeant Mejia, submitted this formal application for discharge as a conscientious objector to Major General William Webster Jr., Commanding General of the Base

NORMA CASTILLO: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Has anyone from General Webster’s staff investigated those allegations from March on during the six-week period that they received the C.O. Application, the conscientious objector application?

NORMA CASTILLO: As far as we know, they haven’t done anything. As far as we know, they haven’t done absolutely anything. I’m sorry that I’m not responding — I’m — right now, we’re entering the base, so we — they’re asking us to give our ID’s. So hold on a minute, please.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Norma Castillo. Very much appreciate, she’s taking this moment as she goes onto the base at Fort Stewart, Georgia, to talk with us. Her nephew, Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia, an activated Florida National Guard soldier is being court-martialed today. He applied for conscientious objector status, refused to return to Iraq after a leave in the United States. In his application for conscientious objector status in March, he talked about the abuse at — not the Abu Ghraib prison, but another one, the Al Assad prison. Are you with us, Norma?

NORMA CASTILLO: Yes. We’re here.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about your family, about Camilo’s father, about the family background?

NORMA CASTILLO: Well, Carlos Mejia is a composer, songwriter in Nicaragua. He wrote the "Peasant’s Mass" back in the 1980’s during the Sandinista years. Marisa, his mother, also was an active — we were all in Nicaragua, we were, you know — hold on a minute I don’t know. They’re holding us here at the base and — They’re — Yeah but we have the pass hold on — This is a 24-hour pass, right?

GUARD: Yes, ma’am. I understand that, but —- other people on gate three are expecting you. They have the -—

NORMA CASTILLO: But everybody else is going through here.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re just eavesdropping on the interaction here as Sergeant — Staff Sergeant Camillo Mejia’s aunt tries to enter the base. She’s at Fort Stewart, Georgia.

NORMA CASTILLO: You see what happened? They’re trying to stop us from getting to the base. Now they changed the gate — the main entrance gate now, and are sending us to another place that nobody knows how to get there. So, this is — this is how they’re treating this case right now. So, let me tell you something — we don’t know how to get there, so. (inaudible)

AMY GOODMAN: Norma Castillo, who has spoken out on her nephew’s case. In fact, she —

NORMA CASTILLO: I’m sorry. Yes, Amy. I’m here.

AMY GOODMAN: Your nephew, Camilo Mejia has offered to testify before Congress about the prison abuse?

NORMA CASTILLO: Well, the lawyer who is for us sent a copy of this form and also requested that Camilo could be — could go to Washington and testify about this, these abuses. So far, we haven’t heard any end responses from that, because he was saying — my client is willing to testify and give his own account of what he witnessed when he was there at this prison camp, which they did not allow them to them call a P.O.W. Camp because, as I said before, it did not comply with the rules established by the Geneva Convention. So, they were not trained to take care of these prisoners, nonetheless, that’s what they were doing at that Air Force base in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: So, your nephew came back to the United States on leave, and then he went underground. He deserted. What made him to decide to surface and apply for conscientious objector status?

NORMA CASTILLO: Part of the reason was, like, he couldn’t continue with being part of the abuses. In one of the statements that he made, he said —–just let me read this. I’m just quoting him. So he’s talking about — he’s talking about a child who got shot and he was calling, you know for his life, and so they wanted to pick him up and take him to the hospital, but they didn’t do so. Then he said, "He died before he could properly be treated. To me," this is what Camilo says, "this is proof that sometimes not following proper Army procedures is the only way to do what is the right thing. The child was shot twice, and he probably would have eventually died, but even if we knew that for sure, it doesn’t justify not everything doing everything in one’s power to help a dying human being." Okay. This is part of the reasons that he decided that he couldn’t be part of this war. I mean, he — he knows there were no weapons of mass destruction. There were no connections between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. The reasons of this war were totally based on the interests (inaudible). He didn’t want to be part of an illegal and brutal war.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Norma Castillo, I want to thank you for being with us. We’ll certainly follow this case. I hope that you make it onto the base for the — -

NORMA CASTILLO: They’re giving us a hard time here to get —

AMY GOODMAN: For the trial. We’ll let people know tomorrow what happened and we thank you very much for speaking to us, Norma Castillo, Camilo Mejia’s aunt, trying to get into Fort Stewart to attend Camilo’s court-martial proceedings. Again, Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia has offered to testify before Congress about torture of Iraqi detainees that he witnessed at the US Military base that he witnessed at Al-Assad in Iraq in May, 2003. That was a year ago. This is Democracy Now!.

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