A court martial trial opened for the first US military officer to openly refuse to go to war in Iraq as protests in his support were organized in several cities across the country. First Lieutenant Ehren Watada, 28, pleaded not guilty on charges relating to his refusal to join his unit as it departed for Iraq in June 2006 arguing that the war was illegal and immoral.
Supporters of the officer organized a demonstration outside Fort Lewis, the military base where his court martial trial got underway Monday 70 kilometers (40 miles) south of Seattle in the state of Washington.
About 20 other protests were planned around the country to show support for Watada, including in New York, Los Angeles, and outside the White House in Washington.
Watada faces up to four years in a military prison on charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice of expressing contempt toward President George W. Bush, of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman and purposely missing his unit’s deployment when it deployed to the Middle East on June 22, 2006.
The charges cite statements Watada made on June 6 defending his decision on the basis that Bush initiated an illegal and immoral war.
“I could never conceive of our leader betraying the trust we had in him. As I read about the level of deception the Bush administration used to initiate and process this war, I was shocked. I became ashamed of wearing the uniform. If the president can betray my trust, it’s time for me to evaluate what he’s telling me to do,” Watada said, according to the court martial charge sheet.
The rights group Amnesty International says three US privates have already been sentenced to between 12 to 15 months in jail for refusing to fight in Iraq.
Although the US Army insists that a soldier has to respect the chain of command and cannot choose which war to fight in, Watada has said that under the US constitution he has the right to refuse an illegal order.
Watada joined the army in 2003 and was posted in South Korea until 2005, when he was transferred to Fort Lewis to prepare for deployment to Iraq.
Instead he requested to be transferred to another unit and proposed that he be deployed to Afghanistan. That was turned down.
Since his arrest he has been assigned to an office job in Fort Lewis while awaiting his trial.
His case has garnered significant support in a nation that has turned sharply against the Iraq war.
Mike Honda, a member of the US House of Representatives, told the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper last week that Watada volunteered for the military in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks “out of a desire to protect his family and compatriots.”
Noting Watada’s “exemplary” service record, Honda defended his act: “Watada is not alone. Poll after poll points to an ever-rising tide of public opposition to President Bush’s handling of the war in Iraq.”
But the judge hearing the case has already said that the issue of the legality of the war in Iraq will not be raised during the court martial, saying the proceeding has no authority to rule on the question.
To counter his ruling, anti-war groups have mocked up several hearings in recent days to lay out “testimony” from witnesses explaining why in their view the war is illegal.
Watada’s stand has also drawn celebrity support, according to a website set up by his supporters.
“I admire your courageous and moral stand. In Christian tradition, ethics insist on the absolute primacy of obeying one’s conscience. It is a categorical imperative,” South African Nobel peace prize laureate Desmond Tutu wrote.
The US actress and activist Susan Sarandon said: “If the definition of a patriot is one who loves and defends his country then Ehren Watada is truly a patriot for his refusal to serve in a war that is harming the people of Iraq and increasing the threat of harm to Americans.”
In an interview on National Public Radio in January, Watada said he felt he had no choice but to refuse to go to Iraq.
“When I saw there were no other alternatives, I believed that I needed to take this issue to the public arena and let the people know why soldiers were dying in Iraq.”