A US army infantryman who grew morally opposed to the war after six months of fierce combat in Iraq was brought before a court martial for desertion yesterday, in a case that has become a talisman for America's peace movement. To his supporters, Sergeant Camilo Mejia is the antithesis of those soldiers facing trial in Baghdad for the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib jail. He was the soldier with a conscience, no longer willing to follow orders he believed to be illegal or immoral. He pleaded not guilty to desertion yesterday.
His defence team introduced experts on war crimes and the elder statesman of the anti-war movement, Ramsey Clark, to try to construct a case that Sgt Mejia's decision to leave his unit arose from a desire to avoid committing atrocities.
"Assuming the facts in Sgt Mejia's conscientious objector application are true, he had authority under international law to absent himself from committing crimes against humanity," said Francis Boyle, an expert on international law at the University of Illinois.
However the judge, Col Gary Smith, rejected all three motions by the defence that tried to bring in considerations of war crimes and other international laws. His only concession was to allow Sgt Mejia his moment in court today to explain his decision to leave the military without permission.
The proceedings, at a small white clapboard building at Fort Stewart army base, were intended by Sgt Mejia's supporters to be the showcase for the anti-war argument. "We are trying to give this as much oomph as possible," said Tod Ensign of Citizen Soldier, a military advocacy group. "We are trying to make some law here. We are trying to change some thinking."
To that end Sgt Mejia's defence team yesterday enlisted the support of Mr Clark, who served as US attorney general at the height of the Vietnam war. He argued that Sgt Mejia was correct to abandon his unit of the Florida National Guard last October when it had engaged in acts he believed to be against the law. "The irony is that they are being court martialled over there for the very things that he is being court martialled for over here for not going back to do," Mr Clark said.
The son of a Sandinista activist - his father wrote the lines in the Nicaraguan national anthem about struggling against Yankee imperialists - Sgt Mejia moved to Florida as a teenager.
He joined the army in 1995 - in part to give him a sense of belonging in America - but he has yet to become a US citizen and carries a Costa Rican passport. In 1998, he left the regular army, transferred to the Florida National Guard and enrolled in a psychology course at university. He was mobilised at the start of the war.
During his stint in Iraq, Sgt Mejia received promotion and commendations. He was, according to his commanding officers and the men under his command, an exemplary and popular soldier until last October, when he left his unit while on two weeks' leave in the US.
By the time Sgt Mejia surfaced last March, he had turned against America's presence in Iraq, denouncing the invasion as a "war for oil". He accused his commanders of wantonly risking soldiers' lives, sending them into dangerous situations simply to drive up the medal tally.
In his application to be recognised as a conscientious objector, Sgt Mejia also described how ordinary infantrymen were pressed into duty as prison wardens at a makeshift detention camp at an Iraqi airbase.
He said soldiers at the al-Assad base, near Baghdad airport, were directed by three interrogators who were not in regulation uniform in tactics to soften up Iraqis for questioning. Soldiers were taught to stage mock executions, clicking pistols near the ears of hooded prisoners, or to bang on metal walls with sledgehammers to keep them awake.
"There comes a point when you have to realise there is a difference between being a soldier and being a human being," Sgt Mejia told the Guardian earlier this month.
Sgt Mejia's defence team is aware that his account of being guided in torture techniques is explosive in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal and it is hoping to give a full airing to his story in court. His lawyers attempted yesterday to construct a sweeping defence invoking international treaties with Costa Rica because of Sgt Mejia's citizenship, as well as articles of the Geneva convention on the treatment of detainees.
If convicted, Sgt Mejia could be sentenced to a year in prison, demotion of rank and a bad conduct discharge. He appears before a separate military panel next week that will determine his status as a conscientious objector.
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