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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, January 5, 2007

Lawyer: Watada had right to debate

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By Melanthia Mitchell
Associated Press

FORT LEWIS, Wash. An Army lieutenant who called the Iraq war illegal and refused to deploy with his Stryker Brigade has a constitutional right to debate such political issues, his lawyer told a pretrial hearing yesterday.

Seeking to reduce the charges against 1st Lt. Ehren Watada, attorney Eric Seitz of Honolulu said the soldier should not be penalized for statements he made explaining why he refused to go to Iraq and why he was challenging the Bush administration's reasons for going to war.

Watada, 28, of Honolulu, is charged with missing movement after refusing to deploy with his unit, the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. The Army also proceeded with charges of conduct unbecoming an officer for statements he made to journalists and at a veterans convention.

Seitz argued that the latter charges should be dropped.

"He should not face another four years of penalties because he chose to explain his reasons for opposing the war," Seitz told Lt. Col. John Head, the military judge overseeing Watada's case at this post south of Tacoma, Wash.

Army prosecutors argued that Watada's statements are offensive to the military and must be looked at in the context in which they were made and the effects they could have as well as the danger they present to the military's mission.

"The dividing line and what makes it more disgraceful is the fact that he made it to more than one person," Capt. Daniel Kuecker said.

Seitz also requested an evidentiary hearing to argue the legality of the war. At a hearing in August, he called on several witnesses to support Watada's contention that the Iraq invasion violated domestic and international law.

Head suggested that such arguments would go to Watada's motive for not deploying and therefore would not be admissible. However, he later said the Army had opened the door by charging the soldier for comments made during a June news conference. Court documents show partial statements in which Watada said, "It is my conclusion as an officer of the Armed Forces that the war in Iraq is not only morally wrong but a horrible breach of American law."

"You've essentially charged his motive as an offense," Head told prosecutors.

In building its case against Watada, the Army called Maj. Robert Bennett, rear detachment commander for the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. He is responsible for preparing the brigade to deploy.

Bennett said commanders, beginning last May, had discussed Watada's intent to refuse deployment when it was reported in newspapers and online.

In mid-June, Watada was not present for a roll call leading up to the deployment, Bennett said.

Head said he would rule in writing but did not say when.

Watada refused to go to Iraq June 22 with his Stryker Brigade after conducting research and deciding the war was illegal. He said he would be willing to serve in Afghanistan or elsewhere.

The soldier was initially charged with missing troop movement, conduct unbecoming an officer and contempt toward officials for comments he made about President Bush.

He was not allowed to resign his commission because his unit is covered by a stop-loss policy.

The Army later added another specification of conduct unbecoming an officer based on his comments in Seattle during the national convention of Veterans for Peace in August. Fort Lewis commander Lt. Gen. James Dubik, in recommending Watada for court-martial, dropped the contempt charge.

If convicted of all charges, Watada could serve six years in confinement and be dismissed from the service.

He now works in an administrative position. His court-martial is scheduled for Feb. 5 at Fort Lewis.

Watada's parents sat in the back of the courtroom during the hearing, his father at times leaning forward on the bench with his hands clasped in front of him.

The family spoke briefly during the lunch break.

"We're very hopeful the charges will be dropped," said Bob Watada, the lieutenant's father.