Trial of Returned Soldier Turned Conscientious Objector Deserves Attention

by Brendan Lalor

The court-martial of conscientious objector Staff Sgt Camilo Mejia deserves more attention. Mejia’s desertion trial is under way. His experience during his five months of service in Iraq, until October, 2003, turned him into a conscientious objector, he says. As The Mirror (20 May 2004) reports:

Staff Sgt Camilo Mejia, 28, who deserted because he didn’t want to fight in an “oil-driven war,” was … court martialled in the US yesterday.

He went AWOL for five months after going home to Florida on two weeks leave from Iraq.

The BBC (20 May 2004) adds that he

refused to go back to duty in Iraq … partly because his unit was told to abuse Iraqi detainees, lawyers have told his trial…. But Judge Gary Smith ruled that evidence about prisoner abuse was irrelevant to the desertion charge…. Staff Sgt Mejia also faces a year in jail and a bad-conduct discharge if convicted…. Lawyers at his trial said he was disturbed by the shooting of civilians and the “abuse and torture” of detainees in a military prison camp near Baghdad airport [Al Assad].

Defence attorney Ramsey Clark said Staff Sgt Mejia’s unit was ordered to use sleep-deprivation tactics with blindfolded detainees.

He sought to make a comparison with the trial of Sivits and others accused of abuses in Iraq.

“The United States is seeking to court-martial soldiers in [Iraq] for outrageous abuses at the same time it prosecutes a soldier halfway around the world because he did what he had a duty to do under international law,” the Associated Press quoted Mr Clark as saying.

Prosecutors argued that witnessing prisoner abuse did not justify fleeing the army.

“This is about a soldier who deserted, who ran away,” lead prosecutor Captain A J Balbo said.

“While he went into hiding, he never raised these issues. Instead he buried them in his conscientious objector packet.”

The trial is continuing.

The Guardian (20 May 2004) noted this tid-bit: “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.”

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