By Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press - Monday, January 28, 2013 - 0 Comments
SHILO, Man. – Master corporal Paul Ravensdale showed “wanton and reckless disregard” for the…
SHILO, Man. – Master corporal Paul Ravensdale showed “wanton and reckless disregard” for the lives of his colleagues when he led a training accident that left one soldier dead and four seriously injured, a prosecutor told a court martial Monday.
“No soldier needs to die on a range,” Prosecutor Maj. Tony Tamburro said in his opening statement.
“(Ravensdale) gave the order to fire those C-19s while his troops were in the danger zone and not undercover.”
Ravensdale, who is now retired, is the third soldier to face a court martial in the Feb. 12, 2010 incident on a weapons training range in Afghanistan. He is accused of manslaughter, unlawfully causing bodily harm, two counts of breach of duty and two counts of negligence.
The soldiers were testing anti-personnel landmines, C-19s, that were new to the mission. When the landmines are detonated during tests, soldiers are supposed to be at least 100 metres behind or sheltered by being in dugouts or inside vehicles.
Instead, military personnel were walking close by, completely unprotected, Tamburro said, and all of it was captured on video to be shown Tuesday.
“The video will show people walking around or standing fully upright in direct line sight of the C-19.”
Something went wrong when the C-19 was set off. Instead of projecting forward, some of the 700 steel balls inside shot backward, piercing through the flesh of four soldiers.
Four balls struck Cpl. Josh Baker, including a chest shot that killed him. Four others suffered puncture wounds — one had an injured kidney.
Ravensdale pleaded not guilty to all six charges Monday. Dressed in a grey suit, he sat beside his two lawyers and paid close attention throughout the proceedings.
Ravensdale was a weapons expert described as “very stoic, calm, capable” by his commanding officer, Maj. Christopher Lunney. Lunney has since been demoted to captain and given a severe reprimand after pleading guilty to negligent performance of duty in the incident.
The other soldier charged in the incident, Maj. Darryl Watts, is awaiting sentencing on charges of negligence and unlawfully causing bodily harm.
Lunney told the court martial Monday he made a mistake in appointing Ravensdale as both the person in charge of the test and the range safety officer that day — protocol requires the tasks be given to different people for weapons such as the C-19.
Lunney was at the range when the accident happened. He recalled being about 100 metres away and helping medics afterward.
He also recalled noticing something. The steel balls had struck light armoured vehicles that were parked behind the C-19. Tires were punctured, antennas were bent and the vehicle’s bodies had small dents in them.
But Tamburro wanted to know if any of the vehicles, which would have been safe areas for the soldiers, penetrated by the steel balls?
“None”, Lunney replied.
Ravensdale’s court martial is expected to last three weeks.
By Michael Friscolanti - Tuesday, April 27, 2010 at 10:28 PM - 9 Comments
A fellow soldier testifies against Capt. Robert Semrau
Cpl. Steven Fournier snapped two photographs of the injured Taliban fighter, just in case the bearded man turned out to be a high-value target. It was Oct. 19, 2008, and as the camera clicked, Capt. Robert Semrau stood nearby, hovering over the badly wounded insurgent. “As I crouched down, I can hear a moan and a groan,” Fournier testified on Tuesday. “He wasn’t dead yet.”
Satisfied with his pictures, Fournier switched off the digital camera, grabbed his gun and began to walk away. He took only a few steps before the gunfire rang out. “I hear two shots behind me, in quick succession,” said Fournier, who immediately turned back around. “I see Capt. Semrau bringing his rifle to a slung position while he closes his ejection port. His rifle was pointed toward the chest of the person lying on the ground.”
Semrau is facing four charges, including second-degree murder, for the alleged “mercy killing” of an unarmed enemy fighter in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Military investigators never found the man’s corpse, and there is no forensic evidence linking his death to the captain’s C-8 rifle. But 18 months after the unprecedented charges were first laid, Fournier’s dramatic testimony offered the first real glimpse of what may have happened that day.
Semrau and Fournier were part of the same four-man Operational Mentor and Liaison Team (OMLT), a special unit of Canadian soldiers attached to a company of troops from the Afghan National Army (ANA). Their job was to “advise” the Afghans on basic soldiering skills, but they had no authority to give orders. On that particular morning, Semrau’s team was on patrol with ANA soldiers in a dangerous region near Lashkar Gah when they stumbled across the wounded man lying on a dirt path. It appeared as though he’d been shot out of a tree by a U.S. Apache helicopter.
Fournier said the unnamed insurgent had a “fist-sized laceration” in his stomach, and that one of his feet was mangled and bloody. “It was held on by some flesh and rotated 180 degrees,” he said. According to Fournier, the ANA commander on scene (Capt. Shafiqullah) said the enemy fighter was too wounded for medical treatment, and ordered his troops to continue moving south. “If Allah wants him, he will die,” Fournier quoted the captain as saying. “If not, he will live.”
The Geneva Conventions and the Canadian Forces Code of Conduct compel our troops to administer First Aid to all casualties, friend or foe. Under questioning from Capt. Tom Fitzgerald, the lead prosecutor, Fournier admitted that neither he nor Semrau provided any medical assistance to the man, even though they were equipped with pressure bandages and tourniquets. But Fournier also hinted at what could be a key part of Semrau’s defence: because the Canadian OMLT team had no authority over the Afghans, they could not overrule Capt. Shafiqullah’s decision to keep moving.
Fournier also said it would have been unsafe to dispatch an ambulance or a Medevac chopper into such an unsecured area. “Capt. Semrau said we would not treat him based on what the ANA commander said,” Fournier testified. “He said we should comply with what the ANA said.”
Minutes after encountering the man on the path, ANA soldiers found another Taliban fighter nearby—this one clearly dead. It was then that Fournier suggested photographing both casualties for intelligence purposes. Semrau agreed, but in a sign of just how careful the Canadians were with their Afghan hosts, he asked Capt. Shafiqullah’s permission. The ANA commander reluctantly agreed, but only on the condition that Fournier photograph the men’s faces, and not their wounds.
Fournier, still a private at the time, snapped two pictures of the dead man first, then headed back toward the other casualty lying on the path. Semrau followed, as did an Afghan interpreter nicknamed “Max.” As they came closer, Fournier said he could see the man move his arm and roll slightly on his side.
Fitzgerald asked Fournier what happened after he took the second set of photos.
“Capt. Semrau tells myself and our interpreter that we can head back because we don’t have to see this.”
“Did he explain what he meant by that statement?” Fitzgerald asked.
“I understood it to mean I don’t have to stand here and watch a man die, sir.”
Semrau is the first Canadian soldier ever accused of homicide on the front lines of a war, and if convicted, faces a mandatory life sentence with no chance of parole for ten years. The 36-year-old has pleaded not guilty.
Fournier is scheduled to continue his testimony Wednesday morning.
By Michael Friscolanti - Monday, April 26, 2010 at 11:13 PM - 26 Comments
A jury lays eyes on Capt. Robert Semrau’s alleged victim
Capt. Robert Semrau is accused of executing a severely wounded Taliban fighter who, eighteen months later, remains anonymous. Military investigators never found the man’s corpse (they tried) and his name is still a mystery. One of the only pieces of evidence that proves this person actually existed is a nine-minute cell phone video shot by an Afghan soldier. On Monday afternoon, that grainy footage was played at Semrau’s court martial for the first time.
Exactly what it reveals is equally grainy.
According to the prosecution’s version of events, Semrau decided that the insurgent was too injured to save, and—after the camera stopped rolling—pumped two bullets into his chest as an act of “mercy.” The video, however, is hardly a smoking gun. It does depict a bearded man lying on a dirt path, a chunk of his left leg severed and bloody. But the person on the screen does not look wounded. He looks dead. Someone had the decency to cover him with a light blue blanket, and another man can be seen lifting his limp right arm off his face. But not once does he moan or groan or even open his eyes. And as any good lawyer will attest, a person who is already dead can’t be murdered.
On the opening day of Semrau’s trial, the lead prosecutor, Capt. Tom Fitzgerald, also promised jurors that the video would show Afghan National Army soldiers spitting and kicking sand on the “wounded” Talib—all while the captain lingered in the background. Yet the clip reveals no sign of such abuse.
Of course, something else is missing from the footage: First Aid. The Crown claims Semrau violated both the Geneva Conventions and the Canadian Forces Code of Conduct, which compel troops to provide medical care to every battlefield casualty—friend or foe. Fitzgerald will certainly suggest that the video proves his suspicion.
But the central accusation—that Semrau took it upon himself to put a dying man out of his agony—will not be settled by video replay. It will come down to the testimony of two supposed eyewitnesses, including Cpl. Steven Fournier, a fellow Canadian soldier who was with Semrau on the morning of Oct. 19, 2008 and—like the cell phone recording—made his courtroom debut on Monday.
Fournier has already told investigators that the mystery man was indeed alive, and that he photographed his face for intelligence purposes. Moments later, he said, Semrau told him to “turn around” because “you should not have to see this.” Fournier then heard two gunshots, wheeling back around just in time to see Semrau closing the ejection port of his C-8 rifle. (The other eyewitness, an Afghan interpreter nicknamed “Max,” is expected to testify that he saw the second bullet pierce the unarmed man.)
Most of Monday’s testimony was spent discussing Fournier’s career, his training—and a suggestion from previous witnesses that he is an unmotivated, out-of-shape “loner” who preferred video games and junk food over his mandatory morning jog. Fournier admitted that he “struggled with” running, and that Semrau, a former personal trainer, offered to help him improve his diet and shed some pounds.
“Did you follow through on this dietary regime?” Fitzgerald asked.
“Yes I did, sir,” Fournier answered.
Like Semrau, Fournier was part of a four-man Operational Mentor Liaison Team (OMLT) attached to a company of Afghan National Army troops. The team’s job was to “advise” the Afghans on basic soldiering skills, but they had no authority to give orders. “Not once would you ever give the ANA an order,” Fournier said. “If you ever gave the ANA an order they would shut you out and ignore you.” The morning that body was found, their OMLT team was among hundreds of ANA troops trolling for Taliban in Helmand Province. The court has already heard that the Afghan commander saw the body, declared his fate to be “in Allah’s hands,” and told his men to move on. Whether Semrau had the authority to ignore that order is expected to be a key question as the trial unfolds.
As for medical care, Fournier testified that Canadian soldiers are trained not to distinguish between casualties. “If you have a wounded Canadian and a wounded Afghan, the worst gets treatment first,” he said. Fitzgerald then asked him to clarify the protocol if one person—an enemy—is wounded. “You treat them as you would treat anyone else, sir,” Fournier answered.
Semrau, a father of two young daughters, has pleaded not guilty to all four charges, including second-degree murder. If convicted, he faces a mandatory life sentence with no chance of parole for ten years.
The trial continues Tuesday.
By Michael Friscolanti - Wednesday, April 21, 2010 at 10:25 PM - 7 Comments
The defence of Capt. Robert Semrau
Despite the headlines (ours included), the murder trial of Capt. Robert Semrau is not a debate about the ethics of mercy killing. Not yet, at least. Yes, military prosecutors claim the 36-year-old officer encountered a severely wounded Taliban fighter on the battlefields of Afghanistan, and ended his agony with a pair of bullets to the heart. But Semrau himself has said only two words: “Not guilty.” He has never conceded that he killed out of compassion, and not once have his lawyers floated such an excuse. That is the government’s theory, not Semrau’s defence.
If the captain did choose to confess—and try to convince a jury that he did the humane thing—it’s hard to imagine a happy ending. Mercy killing, no matter the circumstances, is against the law, and second-degree murder carries a mandatory life sentence with zero chance of parole for ten years. In other words, Semrau’s two young daughters—including a new baby girl born just last week—would have to visit their father in a federal penitentiary.
Semrau’s lead lawyer, Maj. Steven Turner, refuses to discuss courtroom tactics with reporters. But if Wednesday’s cross-examination was any indication, his strategy is clear: attack every witness, and plant the seeds of reasonable doubt.
By Michael Friscolanti - Tuesday, April 20, 2010 at 8:18 PM - 27 Comments
The trial of a Canadian soldier raises troubling questions
Capt. Robert Semrau is facing a military court-martial—and the possibility of life behind bars—for allegedly executing a severely wounded Taliban fighter. According to the prosecution’s version of events, the 36-year-old was bound by both international law and the Canadian Forces Code of Conduct to administer First Aid, but decided to fire two bullets into the man’s chest instead.
From the comfort of a courtroom in Gatineau, Que.—where tracer fire isn’t flying and flak jackets aren’t required—the Crown’s case seems simple enough. Mercy killing, regardless of the circumstances, is strictly forbidden, and the rules of engagement clearly state that medical care must be provided to every casualty, friend or foe. But as the latest witness made abundantly clear, the heat of battle has a way of messing with the best-laid plans.
Warrant Officer Merlin Longaphie, Semrau’s second-in-command during their Afghanistan tour, testified Tuesday that he saw the unidentified Talib shortly before the captain’s fateful encounter. Like Semrau, Longaphie was part of an Operational Mentor Liaison Team (OMLT) assigned to advise members of the rag-tag Afghan National Army, and on the morning of Oct. 19, 2008, they were conducting a major sweep through Taliban territory in Helmand Province. Under fire from enemy insurgents, Longaphie and his unit had just finished sprinting to safety across a large cornfield when he noticed a commotion 25 meters to his right. “It appeared to me there was a body on the ground,” he said on the witness stand. “Some other Afghans, two or three, were looking at the body and lightly kicking it.”
Capt. Thomas Fitzgerald, one of the prosecutors, wanted to know why Longaphie didn’t rush to treat the man—reminding him of his legal obligations under the Geneva Conventions and the military’s code of conduct. “If the person on the ground back there was a Canadian soldier, would you have done something different?” Fitzgerald asked.
After an angry objection from Semrau’s lawyer, Fitzgerald rephrased the question. “Why didn’t you move closer?”
“At the time I didn’t think there was a need to go over there,” Longaphie answered. “Visually, from what I perceived, it was a dead Taliban and there was no reason for me to go over and confirm whether he was dead or alive.”
Two other men—a private under Semrau’s command and an Afghan interpreter named “Max”—have told military prosecutors that the mangled enemy fighter was indeed breathing, and that the captain put him out of his misery. Longaphie didn’t witness the alleged crime; he had moved on from the scene by the time Semrau supposedly aimed his C-8 at the man’s heart. But if nothing else, his testimony was a poignant reminder that combat is not court, and just because the rules dictate that every injured foe must be treated, that doesn’t mean it happens.
Whether that helps Capt. Semrau remains to be seen. Failing to double-check a supposed dead body is one thing. Pumping two rounds into an unarmed man is quite another.
The government claims that Semrau subscribes to a so-called “soldier’s pact”—an unwritten code that says if he is too maimed to be saved, it’s up to a fellow warrior to put him to ease his pain and finish the job. If prosecutors are correct, Semrau extended that pact to the enemy, using it as an excuse to execute. “No one should suffer like that,” he allegedly told one subordinate.
This is the first time a Canadian soldier has been accused of homicide on the battlefield. He faces four charges in all, including second-degree murder, which carries a mandatory life sentence with no chance of parole or ten years.
A father of two young daughters, Semrau has pleaded not guilty to all counts. His trial continues Wednesday morning.