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Semrau's sentence criticized for 'ambiguous' message

Captain Robert Semrau arrives after a recess in the first day of his court martial in Gatineau, Que, on March 24, 2010.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Robert Semrau's lawyer calls him a warrior who still longs to serve his country but the bullets the army captain fired into an unarmed Taliban fighter two years ago have cut short his soldiering career and left a black mark on Canada's record in Afghanistan.

A Forces judge Tuesday demoted Captain Semrau to Second Lieutenant and ruled he should be dismissed in a sentence that is dividing the military community.

The head of Canada's army welcomed the decision but a prominent military historian warned the sentence was too light and sends an "ambiguous" message to rank-and-file troops about such conduct.

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Capt. Semrau is believed to be the first Canadian soldier to be sentenced for a battlefield shooting. The man he shot in October of 2008 was a severely wounded insurgent and witnesses at trial characterized what happened as a "mercy killing."

The judge, Lieutenant-Colonel Jean-Guy Perron, told the 36-year-old captain that he had failed in his role as a military leader and as an "ambassador of Canadian values." The Forces code of conduct says soldiers must offer aid to wounded enemies that do not pose a threat.

"How can we expect our soldiers to follow the laws of war if their officers do not? How can we expect the Afghan National Army to follow the laws of war if the officers mentoring them do not?" Lt.-Col. Perron said.

Capt. Semrau managed to avoid jail time or the more severe sentence of "dismissal with disgrace."

Testimony heard during trial suggested the close-range "double-tap" shooting was an effort to end the suffering of a gravely injured man. But Capt. Semrau was acquitted of second-degree murder and attempted murder in July after the prosecution, which could not produce a body from the war zone, failed to substantiate either charge. He was instead found guilty this summer of shooting the insurgent - and convicted of disgraceful conduct under the National Defence Act.

David Bercuson, historian and director of the University of Calgary's Centre for Military and Strategic Studies, said the sentence should have been tougher to "draw firm lines" between right and wrong.

"It's about saying: 'These are the standards we hold you to … even if there was in your mind mitigating circumstance. [And]We don't agree that shooting even a grievously wounded combatant is acceptable.' Period. Full stop."

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The head of the Canadian army however welcomed the sentence Tuesday "This was a serious and complex matter and it was dealt with accordingly," Lieutenant-General Peter Devlin, Canadian Forces Chief of Land Staff, said in a statement.

But Capt. Semrau's sentence angers rank-and-file soldiers and supporters, who argue he should not have been forced to stand trial for decisions made in a combat zone.

"I was a military officer for 35 years and hope that I would have had the courage to do the very same thing," a supporter calling himself Jock Williams posted on a Facebook page that has attracted more than 8,870 members. "I would serve with Capt. Semrau in a heartbeat if given the chance."

During the trial, one of Capt. Semrau's subordinates testified his leader told him the shooting was a "mercy kill" because it was the "humane thing to do." Capt. Semrau never took the stand himself.

Mercy killing is not a defence in Canadian law.

"You may have been motivated by the honest belief you were doing the right thing. Nonetheless, you committed a serious breach of discipline," Lt.-Col. Perron said.

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Capt. Semrau declined to speak to reporters Tuesday.

His defence lawyer, Captain David Hodson, said the soldier is weighing whether to appeal the court's decisions. There's a 30-day period in which to do so.

The lawyer said Capt. Semrau was "very disappointed" by the sentence, which could remove him from the military in as little as 30 days.

"He's a warrior. He would love to be serving the Canadian Forces and serving his country," Capt. Hodson said.

"He thanks the Canadian public for all the support he's been given throughout the process. We still have troops overseas in harm's way and he only asks that you direct your support to those troops that are in harm's way throughout the world."

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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