10-22-2016  6:42 am      •     
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A lawyer for an Army officer facing possible court-martial for refusing to go to Iraq says he plans to call two witnesses to support the soldier's claim that the war is illegal.
A hearing to determine whether 1st Lt. Ehren Watada will stand trial is scheduled  for Thursday at Fort Lewis, about 50 miles south of Seattle.
Watada, 28, of Honolulu, was charged last month with conduct unbecoming an officer, missing troop movement and contempt toward officials. He refused to deploy to Iraq on June 22 with his Stryker unit, the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division based at Fort Lewis.
Watada has been very public in his disagreement with the war, including making statements that he felt the Bush administration deceived Americans in order to initiate the war.
His lawyer, Eric Seitz, has said such comments are protected free speech.
Seitz planned to present evidence during the Article 32 hearing, the military equivalent of a grand jury proceeding, to support Watada's contention that the Iraq invasion violated domestic and international law.
On Wednesday night, Seitz met with two witnesses, University of Illinois professor Francis Boyle, an international law expert, and Denis Halliday, a former United Nations assistant secretary-general.
Watada himself was calm.
"I made this decision a long time ago," he said during a telephone interview Wednesday night. "It is my obligation to this country. I'm not happy about it and I didn't want to do it, but I had to."
Watada has been reassigned to the Headquarters Company, I Corps, and now works in an administrative position at the post.
"You don't join the military just to blindly follow whatever orders you're given," he said. "An order to go to an unlawful and immoral war based on false pretenses is no different than to kill innocent civilians."
After the hearing, an investigating officer will recommend to commanders whether Watada should stand trial. If convicted, he could face more than seven years in prison and a dishonorable discharge.
Watada's stance has prompted several rallies and declarations of support.
A group gathered Wednesday night at a bridge near Fort Lewis to demand he not be court-martialed.
"Watada is a real sign of courage to stand up to something that is so illegal and so unjust," said the Rev. Bill Bichsell, 78, who works with the homeless in Tacoma. "He's a sign of conscience, he's a sign of resistance."
On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington submitted a friend-of-the-court brief contending Watada should not be punished for his comments on the war.
"Soldiers should not be court-martialed for explaining their views on important political issues when doing so does not adversely affect military functioning," said Kathleen Taylor, executive director of the ACLU's Washington chapter. "Lt. Watada was exercising his free speech rights as a citizen in a democratic society."
— The Associated Press

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