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Army Charges Lieutenant With Contempt and Conduct Unbecoming an Officer for Refusing Iraq Deployment and Criticizing Bush, War

StoryJuly 07, 2006
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The Army has filed three charges against 1st Lieutenant Ehren Watada who refused to deploy to Iraq last month because he believes the war there is illegal. The charges against him include conduct unbecoming an officer, missing movement and contempt toward officials. He faces up to seven years in prison if convicted. [includes rush transcript]

The Army has filed three charges against a lieutenant who refused to deploy to Iraq last month because he believes the war there is illegal. 1st Lieutenant Ehren Watada is the first commissioned officer to refuse deployment to Iraq. The charges against him include conduct unbecoming an officer, missing movement and contempt toward officials. He faces up to seven years in prison and a dishonorable discharge if convicted.

The contempt and conduct charges are based on public comments he made last month criticizing President Bush and the war. After military officials told Watada he was barred from speaking publicly about the case, he issued this video recording on June 7th explaining why he is refusing to fight.

  • 1st Lieutenant Ehren Watada, video statement. Courtesy of Ron Smith.

For more on the latest in 1st Lt. Watada’s case, we go to Hawaii to speak with his attorney.

  • Eric Seitz, attorney for Army 1st Lieutenant Ehren Watada. He has been working on military cases for many years. He joins us on the line from his home in Hawaii.

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

JUAN GONZALEZ: After military officials told Watada he was barred from speaking publicly about the case, he issued this video recording on June 7th, explaining why he is refusing to fight.

1ST LT. EHREN WATADA: It is my duty as a commissioned officer of the United States Army to speak out against grave injustices. My moral and legal obligation is to the Constitution and not to those who would issue unlawful orders. I stand before you today, because it is my job to serve and protect America’s soldiers, its people and innocent Iraqis who have no voice. It is my conclusion, as an officer of the Armed Forces, that the war in Iraq is not only morally wrong, but a horrible breach of American law.

AMY GOODMAN: First Lieutenant Ehren Watada speaking last month. We’re joined by his attorney, Eric Seitz. He joins us on the line from his home in Hawaii. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

ERIC SEITZ: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the charges that the Army has brought against your client, against Army First Lieutenant Ehren Watada?

ERIC SEITZ: Well, we expected him to be charged with missing movement or violating an order to get on a bus to accompany his unit to Iraq. We did not really anticipate that they would charge him with additional offenses based upon the comments and the remarks that he’s made. And that opens up a whole new chapter in this proceeding, because what the Army has clearly tried to do by the nature of these charges is send out a message to people in the military, that if you criticize the war and if you criticize the decisions that were made to bring the United States into this war, that you, too, could be charged with disloyalty, contemptuous remarks and disrespect for higher officers, and in this case, specifically in this charge, the President.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what will happen now, now that the charges have been lodged against him?

ERIC SEITZ: I’m leaving to go up to Fort Washington tomorrow to meet with my client and to meet with the military lawyers. I just got word yesterday that the Army wants to schedule an initial, what they call, Article 32 hearing, which is the military equivalent of a preliminary hearing in a criminal case, for July 21st. I’ve asked that that be postponed until early August, because it’s going to be very difficult for us to be prepared and to do what we need to do in such a serious matter on such short notice. But at some point within the next few weeks, we will have a preliminary hearing. And after that, I anticipate the case will then be tried by a general court-martial.

AMY GOODMAN: Where is Lieutenant Ehren Watada right now?

ERIC SEITZ: He’s at Fort Lewis, which is just south of Seattle, near Tacoma. And he’s been assigned to essentially a desk job, pending the outcome of these proceedings.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And if convicted, what are the penalties that he faces?

ERIC SEITZ: Well, as an officer, he faces a dismissal from the Armed Services, which is the equivalent of what normally is referred to as a dishonorable discharge. And by our calculation, if he’s convicted and sentenced consecutively on all of the current charges, he could get up to about seven-and-a-half years in prison.

AMY GOODMAN: So, his unit has deployed to Iraq? We spoke to Ehren Watada before the deployment, but while he was announcing that he would not be a part of that.

ERIC SEITZ: They’ve gone to Iraq. You know, we made, over a period of several months, we made a number of efforts to get the Army to realize that this was a very serious and sincere position on his part, and we offered a number of alternatives to them with respect to his situation. He offered to go to Afghanistan, because he doesn’t have the same conscientious objections to participating in what the military service is doing in Afghanistan. He offered to perform his duties in some other capacity, until his current term of obligation expires, which would be in December. But the Army really wasn’t interested in any alternatives, unfortunately. And so he refused to get on the bus on June 22nd. And then, immediately he was restricted to the base for about a week until they decided what to do with him. And in the interim, then, his unit left, and he was transferred to another unit, where he’s currently serving.

AMY GOODMAN: This issue of freedom of speech is a very interesting one. Yesterday, we spoke to a Vietnam-era vet named Mike Ferner, who was in the V.A. Medical Center in Chicago a few days ago. He was wearing a Veterans for Peace t-shirt, and he was arrested because he refused to take it off. He had been sitting, drinking a cup of coffee. How will you raise this issue in the case?

ERIC SEITZ: Well, you know, it’s interesting. I haven’t had a free speech issue in the military for many years, and I’ve been doing military cases for 40 years. There were cases like this during the Vietnam War, and I had one case kind of like this during the first Gulf War, where my client here in Hawaii was incarcerated because he refused to go and participate.

AMY GOODMAN: Eric, we have five seconds.

ERIC SEITZ: Okay. In any event, it will be a lively case, I can tell you that, on the First Amendment issue.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Eric Seitz, attorney for Army First Lieutenant Ehren Watada. We thank you for joining us.

ERIC SEITZ: Thank you.

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