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Officer facing court-martial denounces war

January 18, 2007|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

The nation's first Army officer to refuse deployment to Iraq urged the public in a statement Wednesday to "stop the war so that the death and sacrifices of American soldiers will not be in vain" after a major legal setback in his court-martial proceedings.

First Lt. Ehren Watada, who is based at Ft. Lewis near Seattle, faces six years in prison for failing to deploy to Iraq last year with his Stryker brigade and for criticizing President Bush and the war in statements to the media and at a peace convention.

The 28-year-old Honolulu native has argued that the war is illegal because Bush did not obtain proper authorization for it, and that Army rules and the Nuremberg principles adopted after World War II required Watada to disobey orders to participate.

On Tuesday, however, Lt. Col. John M. Head, the military judge in the case, rejected Watada's request to debate the legality of the war at his court-martial next month. Although Watada's attorney, Eric Seitz, had sought to open the question so the soldier could explain why he defied his deployment orders, Head ruled that the war's legality was a political question irrelevant to the charges at hand.

Head also rejected motions to dismiss charges of "conduct unbecoming an officer" related to Watada's criticism of Bush and the war.

Seitz had argued that the 1st Amendment protected Watada's remarks. But Head disagreed in his written decision, saying that courts have ruled that soldiers do not enjoy the same degree of free-speech protections as civilians.

In an interview, Seitz said he was "appalled" by the rulings. "They are extraordinarily broad and subjective, which I find reprehensible. They are essentially saying there is no right to criticize, which we all know is not true," he said, vowing to appeal any conviction to the federal courts.

Watada's court-martial is scheduled for Feb. 5 at Ft. Lewis.

Despite the setback, Watada's statement urged Americans to "fulfill their civic obligations" by protesting the war. "I firmly stand by my belief that this war is illegal and immoral."

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teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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