The U.S. government agreed to drop two counts of conduct unbecoming an officer from its case against the Army lieutenant who called the Iraq war illegal and refused to deploy.
1st Lt. Ehren Watada, whose court-martial is scheduled Feb. 5, still faces a maximum of four years imprisonment if he is convicted of missing movement for his refusal to deploy last June and two remaining counts of conduct unbecoming an officer for comments made at a Veterans for Peace Convention in Seattle.
The two counts dropped Monday carry a maximum of two years in prison. They stem from comments he made to reporters in June explaining why he refused to go to Iraq and why he was challenging the Bush administration’s reasons for going to war.
In exchange, Watada’s attorney Eric Seitz agreed that two subpoenaed reporters will not have to testify. They are Honolulu Star-Bulletin’s Gregg Kakesako and freelance reporter Sarah Olson.
“We will stipulate and agree to the testimony that the reporters would have otherwise provided and the accuracy to the statements that are attributed to my client,” said Seitz, of Honolulu.
Seitz said Watada’s action shields the journalists from the “heavy handedness of the government.”
“While we don’t think any charges should have been filed at all for simply exercising free speech, we are pleased with the government’s willingness to reduce Lieutenant Watada’s potential sentence by two years,” he said.
Seitz is scheduled to leave for Fort Lewis, Washington on Tuesday to attend Watada’s trial next week.
“This is not a justice proceeding but a disciplinary proceeding,” he said. “Really, the only thing the Army is interested in here is what kind of punishment to mete, not whether Lieutenant Watada is guilty or innocent of the charges.
“They’ve already determined, basically, his guilt.”
Military judge Lt. Col. John Head ruled Jan. 16 that the 28-year-old Hawaii-born soldier cannot base his defense on the war’s legality.
Head also rejected lawyers’ claims that Watada’s First Amendment rights shielded him from charges stemming from his criticism of the war. Head said there are limits to the free-speech rights of military personnel.
Watada planned to argue that the war was illegal because it violated Army regulations that wars must be waged in accordance with the United Nations Charter.
Fort Lewis spokesman Joseph Piek said he had “no indication whatsoever” that any full settlement could be reached before trial.
“This is still a serious case of an officer who refused orders to deploy,” he said. “For an officer to violate military law and refuse orders such as these is something the military takes very seriously.”
Seitz said the Army wanted Watada to plead guilty to at least two counts of conduct unbecoming an officer and missing movement in return for a sentence that would included a dishonorable discharge and 18 months in prison.
“We did not feel that was appropriate and there have been no further discussions since the government made that position known to us,” he said.
Seitz said he has offered three months of confinement and dishonorable discharge, but the Army did not indicated any willingness to go along with that.
Watada refused to go to Iraq last June with his unit, the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, after deciding the war was illegal. He has said he would be willing to serve in Afghanistan or elsewhere.