U.S. soldiers seek asylum in Canada

Al Jazeera

July 8, 2004

Two US soldiers pleading for asylum in Canada after walking out on their units over fierce objections to the Iraq war have appeared in a Toronto courtroom.

Jeremy Hinzman, 25, attended a technical pre-hearing at Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) in Toronto on Wednesday, supported by another fugitive American soldier Brandon Hughey.

The IRB set a refugee status hearing for 20, 21 and 22 October for Hinzman, said board spokesman Charles Hawkins.

No court date has yet been set for Hughey, whose case was not heard on Wednesday. No testimony was taken at the hearing, a legal formality to map out the parameters of the case.

The controversy surrounding the two men has ignited controversy in the United States, and sympathy in Canada, especially among those who opposed the Iraq war.

Vietnam reflected

It has also revived memories of the "underground railroad" of activists which transported hundreds of US objectors to the country during the Vietnam war.

The soldiers have gained support
from anti-war demonstrators

Hinzman, who like Hughey has a website to publicise his case, recently spoke at an anti-war rally at the US consulate in Toronto.

He served in Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne but left the United States for Canada with his wife and son after learning the US army planned to send him to Iraq.

Military brass denied his request for conscientious objector status, prompting his asylum claim in Canada in January.

Prosecution and persecution

Both men argue they face prosecution tantamount to persecution in the US because of their strong political beliefs and should therefore be granted haven in Canada.

Hughey, 19, of the US Army 1st Cavalry Division, fled to Canada one day before his unit was deployed to Iraq. He said if he is returned home he will face jail and a dishonourable discharge from the armed forces.

He said on Wednesday that he was optimistic that Canada would permit him to stay.

"The essential key to the case is to prove that the war in Iraq is illegal under international law and represents a violation of human rights," he said.

War legality questioned

Hughey argued that as a US soldier, he was not bound to serve in Iraq as the war was "illegal" as it involved the invasion of a sovereign nation without the full backing of the United Nations.

He is currently living in St Catharines, southwest of Toronto, not far from the Niagara Falls region and the US border, and is hoping soon to get the legal go-ahead to work for a living.

A lawyer for the two men, Jeffry House said that though the IRB operates at arm's length from the Canadian government, the case did have significant political overtones.

"I think there is an irreducible political component to the case," he said.

Canada refused US entreaties to send troops to join US President George Bush's "coalition of the willing" in Iraq - a move that soured relations with its powerful southern neighbour.