Watada charged for refusal
By Ken Kobayashi
Advertiser Courts Writer
By Ken Kobayashi
Army 1st Lt. Ehren Watada, who refused to go to Iraq, plans to defend himself against court- martial charges by challenging the legality of the conflict and raising his constitutional right to free speech.
Watada, a 28-year-old from Honolulu who is based at Fort Lewis, Wash., was charged yesterday with refusing to be deployed with his unit on June 22 and with expressing contempt against officials, including the president, and conduct "unbecoming" of an officer.
The contempt and conduct charges are based on public comments he made on June 7 criticizing President Bush and the war.
The refusal charge carries a penalty of up to two years in confinement, while the contempt and conduct charges each carry up to five years behind bars, one for each time his public remarks were cited.
Watada's lawyer, Eric Seitz, said he wasn't surprised about the refusal to be deployed charge, but said he was "amazed" that the Army was charging him for the public statements.
"What's going to happen is there's going to be a major First Amendment litigation, which I think they're really crazy to invite," Seitz said.
Seitz also said he intends to put the war on trial by contending that the deployment order called for his client to engage in "illegal and immoral activities."
Watada's father, Bob Watada, said it's "fortunate" his son was not charged with other more serious offenses, such as desertion. He said he remains steadfast in his support for his son.
"He won't participate in the massacre of innocent Iraqi people," Bob Watada said.
Army officials at Fort Lewis are limiting their public comments to news releases announcing and describing the charges because of the ongoing case, according to Tammy Reed, public affairs specialist at Fort Lewis.
They did not respond to Seitz's comments.
Ehren Watada's case has drawn widespread attention.
Like the three-year-old war, it has split the community. Supporters of the soldier hail his courage in describing him as the first commissioned officer to refuse deployment to Iraq, while critics condemn his actions as undermining the military's ability to function and accomplish its goals.
Seitz said he intends to bring in the United Nations mandates, the Nuremberg judgments following World War II and the Geneva Accords to show that a person can and should "justifiably question and resist" participating in the war.
The Honolulu lawyer expressed delight that the Army gave him a chance to raise free-speech issues.
"There is nothing disrespectful or disloyal about saying those things," Seitz said.
He said he holds out hope that the Army will re-evaluate the case and work out some resolution.
Seitz said his client had been willing to serve in Afghanistan.
The Kalani High School graduate remained at Fort Lewis while members of his unit had left for their deployment.
Seitz said others will be speaking on behalf of his client in view of the Army's intent to charge him with public statements he makes.
But he said his client believes strongly in the stand he made.
"I don't think he has any regrets," Seitz said.
NEED FOR OBEDIENCE
But others believe Ehren Watada is obligated as a military officer to obey orders and don't believe the case should put the war on trial.
Retired Navy Cmdr. Jack Miller, 72, former president of the Hawai'i chapter of the Military Officers Association of America and a Vietnam War veteran, said if officers can choose to disobey orders, "you have a fighting organization that you can't depend on."
He said order and discipline is essential.
"You have to have instantaneous obedience or your entire organization unravels," he said.
Miller believes the legality or morality of the war shouldn't play a role in the court-martial.
That issue is left to lawmakers, he said, and can't be left to individual military officers.
Miller also said he doesn't believe free speech covers Ehren Watada's remarks.
"If your comments are deleterious to a mission that you're charged to accomplish, that should not be protected," Miller said.
The next step in Watada's case is an Article 32 hearing, similar to a civilian grand jury proceeding that determines whether the case moves toward a trial.
Watada's supporters in Washington state have called for a rally today near Fort Lewis. They said on June 27, supporters in more than 30 cities rallied on what they called the National Day of Action to Stand Up with Lt. Watada.
Reach Ken Kobayashi at firstname.lastname@example.org.