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COURT-MARTIAL

Reject desertion case, soldier's lawyers ask

FORT STEWART, Ga. -- A US soldier charged with deserting his unit in Iraq walked away from the war partly to avoid orders to abuse Iraqi prisoners, his lawyers argued yesterday.

Lawyers for Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia, an infantrymen with the Florida National Guard, spent the first day of Mejia's court-martial arguing that a military judge should dismiss the desertion charge.

Ramsey Clark, one of Mejia's lawyers, said his client was disgusted after his unit was ordered to use sleep-deprivation tactics with blindfolded Iraqi detainees. In at least one instance, Clark said, a pistol was cocked next to detainees' heads.

Clark, US attorney general under President Johnson and an outspoken opponent of the Iraq war, said Mejia was protected by international law in avoiding duties that would have constituted war crimes. He compared Mejia's assertions about prisoner mistreatment to the abuse scandal at the Abu Ghraib prison 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," Clark said.

Mejia, 28, is charged with desertion after failing to return to his unit in Iraq following a two-week furlough in October. He turned himself in to the Army in Massachusetts in March after being gone five months, saying he did not want to fight in an "oil-driven war."

Mejia faces a year in prison and a bad-conduct discharge if convicted of desertion, which military law defines as leaving the military with no intention to return or to "avoid hazardous duty or to shirk important service."

Captain A.J. Balbo, the lead prosecutor, argued that even if Mejia saw prisoners abused in Iraq, that would not justify fleeing the Army for five months.

"This is about a soldier who deserted, who ran away," Balbo said. "While he went into hiding, he never raised these issues."

After returning in March to Fort Stewart, Mejia applied to become a conscientious objector, saying his experiences in Iraq had made him opposed to war.

While he said publicly that he became upset after seeing Iraqi civilians hit by gunfire during an ambush on his unit, he did not previously mention witnessing abuse of Iraqi detainees. He described those allegations in his objector application, filed March 16.

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