SAN DIEGO — Antiwar activists have taken up the cause of an Army deserter who was deported from Canada and is now being held at the brig at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.
Two dozen members of Military Families Speak Out and San Diego Veterans for Peace protested Tuesday afternoon outside the base in support of Robin Long, a onetime Army private who was sentenced in August to 15 months behind bars and a dishonorable discharge.
The activists support Long's view that the Iraq war is illegal and say his sentence is particularly cruel because it could prevent him from returning to his sick girlfriend and their 2-year-old son in Canada. Canadian law makes it difficult for convicted felons to enter Canada.
"Here's a guy who did what his conscience told him to do," said Dave Patterson, who was in the Air Force during the Vietnam War.
"Why do we need to put him in prison? That's crazy."
Long, 25, of Boise, Idaho, enlisted in 2003 and deserted in 2005 when his Ft. Carson, Colo.-based unit was ordered to Iraq. He fled to British Columbia and applied for refugee status on the grounds that, as an opponent of the war in Iraq, he would suffer irreparable harm if returned to the United States.
Long's application was rejected and he was deported in July. His court-martial case is on appeal to a military appeals court. Also, activists have appealed to President-elect Barack Obama to pardon Long.
Long was the first U.S. service member who sought sanctuary in Canada to be deported. His deportation caused a political controversy in Canada because it seemed to signal a reversal of Canada's welcoming attitude toward deserters and draft resisters from the U.S. during the Vietnam war. About half a dozen American service members in Canada are now believed to be facing deportation.
As the Long case continued, the lower house of the Canadian parliament passed a nonbinding motion calling on the government to allow U.S. deserters to remain in Canada.
The Conservative Party government has not followed that policy.
In Canada, Long met a Canadian woman, fathered a child and opened a business encouraging water conservation by replacing grass lawns with less thirsty plants. His attorneys believe that Canada and the U.S. military have dealt harshly with him as an example to other troops.
"It's such a waste," said James M. Branum, Long's lawyer.
Joel Guberman, an immigration lawyer in Toronto who is not involved in the Long case, said a deportation order and a criminal conviction will make it difficult, but not impossible, for Long to return to Canada.
Guberman said Canadian law allows three avenues of appeal: Long could seek a "waiver of admissibility" based on the argument that desertion from the U.S. Army is not a serious crime in Canada. He could wait five years and assert that he has been rehabilitated. Or, he could get a hearing after being sponsored for return by his girlfriend, a Canadian citizen.
"It's not quite as dire as I'm hearing," he said in a telephone interview.
Military rules prohibit brig prisoners from talking to reporters. But before he was deported, Long was quoted on an activist website as saying, "Regardless of what hardships I go through, I could have put Iraqi families through more hardships. I have no regrets."