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Judge delays retrial of Iraq war objector

October 06, 2007|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

seattle -- A federal judge on Friday granted a delay in the court-martial of Army 1st Lt. Ehren Watada, whose retrial for refusing deployment to Iraq was scheduled to begin Tuesday at Ft. Lewis.

Watada's supporters said the move by U.S. District Judge Benjamin H. Settle signaled the possibility that he might cancel the military trial altogether, ending a legal battle that began 16 months ago.

"If we win the next part, we win," said Watada lawyer James Lobsenz, referring to Settle's forthcoming decision on whether Watada legally can be tried twice on the same charges.

A February court-martial ended in a mistrial when a military judge decided that Watada had not fully understood a 12-page plea agreement he had signed that cut two years off his possible sentence but also included admissions of guilt.

Watada is charged with failure to deploy and four counts of conduct unbecoming an officer. If convicted, he would be dishonorably discharged and could be sentenced to up to six years in prison. He has said he intentionally missed his June 2006 deployment flight to Iraq because he believes the war is illegal.

The conduct-unbecoming charges stem from public statements he made against the war and the Bush administration.

His lawyers have argued that the military is violating Watada's constitutional rights by trying him again. When an Army court of appeals disagreed, the defense went to federal court to block the second court-martial.

Settle granted the postponement to study the issue of double jeopardy. A ruling could come by the end of the month.

Assistant U.S. Atty. Brian Kipnis, who argued the Army's case in federal court, said he welcomed the opportunity "to more fully brief the issues."

Watada's unit recently returned to Ft. Lewis after a 15-month tour of duty in Iraq.

Watada says that taking part in the U.S. military action in Iraq would make him a war criminal. He requested deployment to Afghanistan instead, saying he does not oppose bearing arms and is willing to fight the Taliban. The Army refused.

Settle's four-page order Friday acknowledged it was unusual for a civilian court to intervene in a military trial. Government attorneys have argued the federal court does not have jurisdiction.

"As a general rule," Settle wrote, "federal civilian courts should not entertain such petitions until all available remedies within the military court system have been exhausted." Settle concluded Watada had exhausted his military options. Settle made it clear that he wasn't ruling on the double- jeopardy question but was seeking more time to reflect on the matter.

The stay will be in effect until at least Oct. 26.

Watada has been assigned to administrative work at Ft. Lewis, and he is barred from traveling farther than 250 miles from the base without permission.

"He's not in custody, but he's not free either," said Kenneth Kagan, another of Watada's lawyers. "He's doing as well as can be expected. Naturally, he wants to move on with his life."

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tomas.alex.tizon@latimes.com

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