A FEDERAL court in Toronto has agreed to hear an appeal from an American soldier turned down for refugee status in Canada after refusing to serve in Iraq. If he is sent back to the U.S., Jeremy Hinzman faces a court martial and the possibility of up to five years in jail as a deserter.
Hinzman joined the elite infantry division, the 82nd Airborne, about three years ago. He served in a noncombat role in Afghanistan and was later turned down by the military brass as a conscientious objector. When, on his subsequent return to the U.S., he learned that he would be deployed in Iraq, he decided to cross the border into Canada in early 2004. He is currently living in Toronto with his wife, Nga Nguyen, and son, Liam.
The Rapid City, South Dakota native believes that the U.S. attack on Iraq is illegal under international law and that he would be a party to war crimes if he participated.
In March 2005, Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board turned down Hinzman’s refugee claim. The former soldier’s lawyer, Jeffrey House, had argued that the 27-year-old Hinzman would be punished for acting on his conscience.
The board, however, found that Hinzman did not qualify as a conscientious objector. The adjudicator also held that he was not convinced that the ex-soldier would face persecution in the U.S. if forced to return. The board, which has never accepted a refugee from the United States, has stated in the past that America is not a “refugee producing” country.
In denying Hinzman’s claim, the adjudicator opined that the legal status of the war in Iraq had no bearing on the case. One of the issues on which Hinzman’s appeal is based is the question of whether this decision not to consider the legality of the war amounted to an error in law.
The politically sensitive case is being closely monitored by authorities in Canada and the U.S. Indeed, the case has become the proverbial public relations “hot potato” for American authorities. At the hearing, a former U.S. Marine testifying in Hinzman’s support stated that American soldiers in Iraq routinely violated international law by killing unarmed women, children and other Iraqi civilians.
Canadian supporters say that hundreds of U.S. soldiers may be in the country and that at least 20 of them are trying to gain refugee status. Profiles of a few of them are available online at <http://www.resisters.ca/resisters_stories.html>.
Lee Zaslofsky of the War Resisters Support Campaign called the federal court ruling a “real breakthrough” for U.S. resisters. “This is very good,” Zaslofsky told the press. “It will have an impact on all the other cases.”
The matter will be heard by Federal Court Justice Sean Harrington on Feb. 7 in Toronto. According to attorney House, if his arguments are successful the court likely will refer the matter back to the board (to a different adjudicator or panel) for further consideration. Justice Harrington may also provide specific instructions on dealing with the contested issues, House said, principally the legality of the war in Iraq.
“The best possible outcome,” he said, “is that we get a full hearing in which all our arguments are considered.”
Both House and Zaslofsky are Vietnam-era war resisters who settled in Canada.
A new film on war resisters, “Let Them Stay,” will screen in Toronto on Dec. 10. The film, narrated by Shirley Douglas and produced and directed by Alex Lisman, features one-on-one interviews with U.S. war resisters, documenting their life-changing experiences in Iraq and the hidden realities of U.S. military recruitment and warfare. It also documents the War Resisters Support Campaign, a pan-Canadian coalition working with the war resisters to put pressure on the federal government to allow these former soldiers to remain in the country.
A number of resisters, including Darrell Anderson, Patrick and Jill Hart, Hinzman, Brandon Hughey, and Ryan and Jen Johnson will attend the premiere.