Reprieve for Watada

Mistrial ends Watada court-martial: War objector may have to be tried again

FORT LEWIS — The court-martial of 1st Lt. Ehren Watada ended in a mistrial Wednesday.

The case’s judge, Lt. Col. John Head, declared the trial over after a day of wrangling over a stipulation of facts that Watada had signed before the trial and that would have been part of the instructions to the jury. The judge decided that Watada never intended when he signed the stipulation to mean that he had a duty to go to Iraq with his unit.

Again the issue was Watada’s views on the Iraq war — opinions that kept him from going with his unit to the conflict and that the judge didn’t want brought up at the court-martial.

Watada, a Stryker Brigade soldier, is the first commissioned officer to refuse to be deployed to Iraq. Watada’s unit left this sprawling base for Iraq in June, but Watada remained behind. He said he believes the war is illegal and that his duty is to not abide by illegal orders.

But Head tried to keep the court-martial from becoming a tribunal on the war and its legality and has ruled that Watada’s attorney cannot present witnesses to question the war’s legality. Outside the base, that has been the issue as peace activists from across the country have rallied to Watada’s side.

Watada is charged with missing movement to Iraq and with two counts of conduct unbecoming an officer. Those last two charges result from statements Watada made against the war in a video tape released to reporters after he made his refusal to go to Iraq public and to a Veterans for Peace convention at the University of Washington.

He had been charged with two other counts of conduct unbecoming for interviews he gave. Prosecutors dropped those charged in return for Watada’s signing a stipulation that he had given the interviews. He also acknowledged in the stipulation that he didn’t go with his unit to Iraq, though he didn’t admit his guilt to the missing movement charge.

With the jury of officers out of the courtroom Wednesday morning, Head wanted to question Watada about the stipulation to make sure that it was accurate and to protect the lieutenant against any mistakes in it.

But Eric Seitz, Watada’s attorney, objected to the questioning. He said the stipulation should include Watada’s reasons for not going to Iraq: His views that the war is illegal.

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