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Saturday, August 26, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Watada could face 7 years in prison

Seattle Times staff reporter

An Army investigator has recommended a court-martial trial for 1st Lt. Ehren Watada, finding "reasonable grounds" that the Fort Lewis-based officer refused to deploy in June with his unit for Iraq, showed contempt toward political leaders and engaged in unbecoming conduct.

The Fort Lewis commander, Lt. Gen. James Dubik, will make a final decision on whether Watada will face a general court-martial trial. If convicted at trial on all of the charges recommended by investigating officer Lt. Col Mark Keith, Watada could be sentenced to seven years in prison.

Keith also said that Watada's recent statement at a Seattle anti-war convention that soldiers can stop the war by refusing to fight borders on mutiny and sedition.

Mutiny and sedition — under the Military Code of Justice — carries a possible death penalty for those convicted of the crime. However, Keith did not recommend that Watada be charged with those crimes, according to Joe Hitt, a Fort Lewis spokesman.

Eric Seitz, an attorney representing Watada, said he was hopeful that the case might be resolved short of a court-martial trial, noting that Keith's finding that Watada was "sincere" in his beliefs could bolster the chances of such a settlement.

Watada, who grew up in Hawaii, joined the military in 2003 and once appeared to have a bright career, earning good performance rankings from his superiors.

But earlier this year, Watada refused to deploy with his unit to Iraq, citing a belief that the war is illegal and has resulted in war crimes committed by the U.S.

His willingness to join with peace groups has transformed him into one of the active military's most high-profile critics of Bush administration policies. At a hearing last week, Watada's attorneys argued that the war was illegal because it had not been authorized by the United Nations Security Council, so it was an officer's duty to refuse to deploy. Keith concluded that it would be "very difficult for Army officers to determine the legality of combat operations (nor should they attempt to do so).

The defense also argued that Watada's public criticism of the war, President Bush and other political leaders was protected freedom of speech. But Keith found that Watada's repeated public criticism of the president served to "break down the good order and discipline of all military personnel."

All of Watada's actions, according to Keith, combined to support the separate charge of conduct unbecoming an officer.

Watada serves with the 3rd (Stryker) Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, which in June made its second deployment to Iraq. Watada sought to resign his commission, but that was rejected because he had not fulfilled his service obligations, according to Army officials.

Watada says he is not a conscientious objector, and he supports the war in Afghanistan.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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