Captain Semrau does not deserve five years in jail for Afghan mercy killing

Jul 21st, 2010 | By | Category: In Brief
Captain Robert Semrau, a member of the Operational Mentor Liaison Teams in Afghanistan, around the time he was charged in early 2009. Photograph by Canwest News Service.

Captain Robert Semrau in Afghanistan, around the time he was charged in early 2009. Photograph by Canwest News Service.

I rarely agree with Peter Worthington, the right-wing militarist journalist who has done so much for the Toronto Sun. But I think he is onto something in the case of Captain Robert Semrau.

A native of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Captain Semrau was granted an “exemplary discharge” from the British army before joining the Canadian forces. On October 19, 2008 he shot a dying Taliban fighter in Afghanistan, in what he has called a “mercy killing.” The fighter had earlier been shot out of a tree by US helicopter cannon fire.  One “of his legs had been severed at the hip.” The other was “held together only by flesh,” and he “had a gaping hole in his abdomen.”

A four-person Canadian military panel has just now found Captain Semrau not guilty of second-degree murder, attempted murder, and negligently performing a military duty imposed on him in this 2008 shooting. It has also found him guilty of “disgraceful conduct” — which could be punished by up to five years in jail, and would in most cases end any future military career.

Captain Robert Semrau leaves a court martial in Gatineau, Quebec with his wife, Amelie, on Monday, July 19, 2010. Photograph by Wayne Cuddington, Postmedia News.

Captain Robert Semrau leaves a court martial in Gatineau, Quebec with his wife, Amelie, on Monday, July 19, 2010. Photograph by Wayne Cuddington, Postmedia News.

An Afghan observer complained about Captain Semrau’s action. It seems that the Canadian military panel felt it could not let the captain off altogether scot-free. Michael Byers, a University of British Columbia professor I admire, has put the case for some kind of conviction:“What matters here is that Captain Semrau disregarded the rules of international humanitarian law, in which all our soldiers are schooled, and chose instead to follow his own moral code … Professional militaries cannot tolerate this kind of freelancing … it undermines discipline, consistency, and the effectiveness of the team.”

I should make clear as well that I personally do not support the western military intervention in Afghanistan. Yet we the Canadian people have nonetheless asked our professional soldiers to risk their lives in this country. And that places on all of us an obligation to those who have accepted this dangerous mission.

It is in this context that I find myself in broad agreement with Peter Worthington. It is grossly unfair to find such an apparently exemplary soldier as Captain Semrau “guilty of disgraceful conduct — when his conduct was utterly the opposite …  Now Semrau’s future as a superlative officer in the Canadian Forces is in doubt … If Semrau is sent to prison it’ll be a travesty.”

I also agree with Captain Semrau’s legal team, that a sentence of up to five years in jail and the end of an exemplary military career for what Michael Byers suggests the captain is guilty of almost certainly violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

 Beautiful downtown Moose Jaw, Christmas 2006.  Compliments zenwaiter.com.

Beautiful downtown Moose Jaw, Christmas 2006. Compliments zenwaiter.com.

According to a report in the Toronto Sun, the captain “will likely ask for a house arrest sentence for his conviction of disgraceful conduct on an Afghan battlefield in October 2008.”

As matters stand, “that sentence doesn’t exist in the National Defence Act.” But “Semrau’s lawyers argued in court Tuesday [July 20]” that “the sentencing options available in the Act are too limited —  even unconstitutional … They want the military judge in the historic court martial to include Criminal Code sentencing options such as house arrest, probation and community service.”

If I were the judge, I’d sentence Captain Semrau to two weeks house arrest, without any prejudice to his future military career — and to one hour of community service in a federally funded parade down the main street of Moose Jaw. That is the very least Canada owes him.

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  1. Shame on the courts martial of Captain Semrau for finding him guilty of anything but compassion for an enemy combatant who would not have been as merciful towards the Captain had the situation been reversed. My father fought in WWII and knew first hand of such acts of battlefield mercy. In fact after finding six Canadian soldiers on the Normandy dunes with their hands wired behind their backs and a bullet hole in the back of their heads my fathers unit took very few prisoners except having been ordered to do so. Canadians have wallowed so long in the mire of liberal PC’isms that we have lost sight of the world’s realities.
    Garry Almas

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