Soldier’s murder trial moves to Afghanistan

OTTAWA – The second-degree murder trial of a Canadian soldier will move to the scene of the alleged crime – Afghanistan – next month.

Testimony is scheduled to resume at Kandahar Airfield, where Afghan soldiers and interpreters are to give evidence about the events of Oct. 19, 2008.

Military prosecutors contend that, during an Afghan-led military operation that day in Helmand Province, Capt. Robert Semrau, 36, of Canadian Forces Base Petawawa in Ontario fired two tracer rounds into the chest of a severely wounded, disarmed Taliban insurgent.

Semrau faces four charges, including second-degree murder, in connection with what has been described as a battlefield mercy killing. Semrau has pleaded not guilty to all counts.

His general court martial, which began two months ago, has been marked by repeated delays as lawyers argue over how the unusual case should proceed.

Military prosecutors recently concluded the “Canadian” portion of their case.

The court martial will now go into hiatus as the Office of the Chief Military Judge co-ordinates the court’s move to Afghanistan.

Since the judge, court reporter, prosecutors, defence lawyers and five-member jury are military personnel, they must all be qualified to perform first aid, fire a C-8 rifle and respond to a chemical or biological attack in order to travel to Kandahar Airfield.

In Afghanistan, the court martial is expected to hear from an Afghan interpreter, known as Max, who was with Semrau, and his fire team partner, Cpl. Steven Fournier, on the day of the alleged shooting.

Military prosecutor, Capt. Tom Fitzgerald, has told court that the interpreter saw Semrau fire the second shot into the wounded Taliban fighter, who had been left to die by the Afghan National Army. The insurgent had been blasted from a tree by an Apache helicopter.

Fournier has testified that Semrau told him and the interpreter to walk away from the wounded man. After he turned to go, Fournier said, he heard two shots in quick succession and turned with his rifle raised, fearing an ambush. Fournier said he saw Semrau standing over the insurgent with his rifle pointed at his chest.

Semrau was leader of a four-man Canadian mentoring unit embedded with an Afghan rifle company.

Fournier has testified Semrau admitted to a “mercy killing” when the mentoring team gathered on the battlefield a few minutes after the shooting.

That version of events, however, has not squared with the testimony of other team members.

Former Cpl. Tony Haraszta, testified that Semrau spoke to the team that night and told them he shot the Taliban to “put him out of his misery.”

The third team member, Warrant Officer Merlin Longaphie, testified that Semrau made no such admissions any time that day.

Semrau’s lawyers have yet to present a defence in the case, but their cross-examinations have served to highlight the inconsistencies between witnesses.

The defence has also established that it would have been next-to-impossible for Semrau to call in a helicopter to remove the injured man since the area had not been secured.

It will also be open to the defence to argue that the Taliban fighter had already died by the time Semrau is alleged to have shot him. In a cellphone video, entered into evidence by the prosecution, the insurgent lies motionless on the ground and shows no signs of life.

There are no autopsy results in the case, since the insurgent’s body was never recovered.

The court martial has also heard that Canadian soldiers were taught that a military operation should never be compromised by the administration of first aid on a battlefield. Longaphie said his battlefield first-aid course instructors stressed that, in war, “tactical realities” trump all other concerns.

The instructors, he said, suggested it was sometimes necessary to sacrifice the lives of injured combatants to ensure the success of a mission.

Ottawa Citizen

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