Tuesday, February 6, 2007

From combined dispatches

FORT LEWIS, Wash. — The judge in the case against the first U.S. officer court-martialed for refusing to go to Iraq barred several scholars on international and constitutional law from testifying yesterday about the legality of the war.

Army 1st Lt. Ehren Watada, 28, of Honolulu, is charged with missing a movement for refusing to ship out with his unit, the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. He also faces charges of conduct unbecoming an officer for accusing the Army of war crimes, denouncing the U.S. for conducting an “illegal war” founded on “lies” and encouraging fellow soldiers to “throw down their weapons.”

As the court-martial got under way, military judge Lt. Col. John Head refused to allow almost all defense witnesses to take the stand. Col. Head previously ruled that Lt. Watada’s attorney, Eric Seitz, could not debate the legality of the Iraq war in court.

“It’s become almost clear now that there is nothing for us to say in this courtroom,” said Mr. Seitz, who called the decisions “comical” and “atrocious.”

Lt. Watada’s supporters — including actor and anti-war activist Sean Penn — and opponents gathered outside the gates of the Army base, waving banners and shouting. A few others demonstrated against him, including one man who carried a sign calling Lt. Watada a “weasel.”

If convicted, Lt. Watada could receive four years in prison and a dishonorable discharge. He has requested that his case be heard by a military panel of officers, the equivalent of a jury. He pleaded not guilty yesterday.

Panel selection began in the afternoon, with the defense and prosecution questioning a pool of 10 officers. Seven were ultimately chosen to sit on the panel. Prosecutors are expected today to call at least three witnesses as they try to prove that Lt. Watada’s speech amounted to misconduct.

On the first day of the court-martial at this Army base near Seattle, Lt. Watada explained that he saw the order to go to Iraq and support combat operations as illegal because the war itself was illegal.

“I had no other choice but to refuse the order,” he said.

Mr. Seitz said he would call Lt. Watada and a character witness, an Army captain who has known Lt. Watada for about two years. The captain has been brought back from service in Iraq to testify, the lawyer said.

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