US Army officer court-martial tests free speech

SEATTLE, Feb 2 (Reuters) - A U.S. Army officer, whose public refusal to go fight in Iraq made him a champion of the anti-war movement, faces a court-martial next week when a military panel could determine the limits of free-speech rights for officers.

First Lt. Ehren Watada faces up to four years in prison if convicted on a charge of missing movements and two charges of conduct unbecoming an officer when his court-martial starts on Monday at Fort Lewis, an Army base near Seattle.

Watada, a 28-year-old artillery officer, refused to deploy with his brigade to Iraq last summer and called the war illegal and immoral. He refused conscientious-objector status, saying he would fight in Afghanistan but not Iraq.

The court-martial gets under way at a time of waning public support for the war in Iraq in the face of President George W. Bush's proposal to send 21,500 more troops to war.

Supporters of Watada say he is the first Army officer to publicly refuse to fight in Iraq and refuse conscientious objector status.

"It's not that I am scared. It's that I strongly believe this war is illegal and immoral and participation in it would be contrary to my oath to this country," Watada said in an interview this week.

The two charges of conduct unbecoming an officer stem from public comments Watada made encouraging soldiers "to throw down their weapons" to resist an authoritarian government at home.

Earlier this month, a military judge rejected the defense's argument that Watada's statements were completely covered by the U.S. constitutional right to freedom of speech.

"If you do go out with public statements, you have to be prepared for what are the potential repercussions of that," said Paul Boyce, an Army spokesman.


A military panel will decide if his criticism of the war amounted to officer misconduct -- whether the comments pose a danger to the loyalty, discipline, mission and morale of the troops.

"This case will test the limits of what is free speech and what is speech that can be curtailed in the military," said Kathleen Duignan, executive director of the National Institute of Military Justice, a non-profit organization.

"Of course, when you join the military you give up some of your constitutional rights, such as the right to complete unfettered free speech," she said, referring to the military justice code that individuals must agree to before enlisting.

Demonstrators plan to rally for Watada, who has become a focus of anti-war protesters, outside the gates of Fort Lewis when his court-martial starts next week.

Watada, a native of Hawaii who served for a year in Korea, joined the Army in 2003 after the United States had already invaded Iraq. Upon returning to America, Watada began to question the reasons behind the U.S. involvement.

The officer said he decided to speak out against the war, because he feared that the administration was emboldened by the ability to use "lies and deception" to engage in war in Iraq and could repeat that course of action with Iran or Syria.

"When you have leaders that are unaccountable, who have already deceived people over something as serious as war and are willing to do it again, you have to ask yourself, 'where do you stand?'" said Watada.