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Good Samaritan, or cold killer?

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The case of Col. Russell Williams, charged in a series of sex crimes and slayings, is not expected to shed much light on military affairs, but it will likely spur some discussion, as it already has, about the nature of evil and the dark side of humanity. But unless there is evidence senior officers ignored warning signs something was amiss, the military should not find itself on trial, too.The military establishment, however, is not getting off so easy in another alleged murder involving a Canadian army officer. It's a case that has the potential of providing significant insight into the nature of combat stress and the hard and inhuman choices that are made in battle. It may also provide a rare glimpse into aspects of a war that have been largely unseen and unreported at home.

Capt. Robert Semrau, 36, a member of the Royal Canadian Regiment, is charged with second-degree murder for allegedly executing a "severely wounded" Taliban insurgent in October 2008 following a skirmish in Afghanistan. It's believed to be the first time a Canadian soldier has been charged with committing murder on the battlefield, although the killing of enemy soldiers after surrender is not new or rare.

The case is somewhat unique because a body was never recovered from the field -- it's believed the corpse was dragged away by the insurgents or local Afghans. As a result, the name of the alleged victim is not known.

Semrau was a member of Canada's elite Operational Mentor Liaison Team, which deploys small groups of four or five highly trained soldiers to work with the Afghan National Army in combat operations. When I was in Afghanistan last year, the officer in charge of the mentoring unit described it as a "classic special ops A Team" that focuses on developing and organizing indigenous forces to fight hostile insurgents.

The work is extremely dangerous for two reasons. First, Afghan army soldiers are a major target for insurgents and, second, Canadian mentors are forced to trust allies whose reliability and loyalty are sometimes in question.

Semrau was on patrol with a company of Afghan soldiers when they were ambushed. They took cover and called in an attack helicopter, which raked the area with gunfire and rockets. When the battle was over, Semrau is alleged to have fired two shots into a wounded insurgent, although the nature of the eyewitness testimony is somewhat controversial.

At the court martial taking place on a military base at Gatineau, Que., military prosecutors have asked for a publication ban on the evidence of a single witness, whose evidence will only be presented by affidavit when the trial begins. There has been speculation the mystery witness, who may be the only person to have observed the shooting, could be an intelligence officer who watched the battle through surveillance technology, commandos who may have passively observed the fighting, or an Afghan soldier who is not available to testify.

Whoever it is, Semrau will not be able to cross-examine the witness unless he or she appears in person.

The case has been delayed because of legal motions surrounding this and other issues, including whether the trial should have been held in Afghanistan and whether battle-experienced junior officers and NCOs should be members of the panel hearing the case. Semrau believes it is unfair to have his case heard by senior officers with no appreciation of the challenges soldiers face in combat.

When the court martial does begin, Canadians hopefully will gain some insight into the conditions endured by soldiers in the field, particularly those working with Afghan army units. The work of officers like Semrau has not been widely documented and, as far as I know, no reporter has ever embedded with an Afghan army unit.

Critics have taken aim at the Defence Department for prosecuting the case in the first place, citing both the meagre evidence and the unique circumstances. The evidence may show, for example, that Semrau was forced to make a tough decision: Abandon the unit's patrol and mission by administering aid to the severely wounded insurgent until help arrived, or continue the patrol and leave the man to suffer.

Was he a Good Samaritan, as his defenders claim, or a cold-blooded killer like any other, as the prosecution alleges?

The fact the case is being prosecuted is evidence Canadian soldiers are held to the highest standards of conduct, which irritates some observers who believe it is unfair and unrealistic to expect civil behaviour and good manners in war. In the end, the court will decide if the unique circumstances are mitigating factors.

At the time Capt. Semrau made his fateful decision, he was probably dirty, hungry, exhausted and traumatized by the fighting.

The same cannot be said for Col. Williams.

One case is a military tale, the other is not.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 12, 2010 A14

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