Objector or 'Deserter'?

Oklahoma Gazette | June 18, 2004
When U.S. Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia came to Oklahoma’s Fort Sill, he wasn’t greeted by hugs and kisses. Nor was there the pomp and circumstance typically reserved for those who have served time in the Iraqi war.

His family was hundreds of miles away, and the media were forbidden to speak with him. The lines of communication had been severed.

That’s because Mejia isn’t considered a hero in the eyes of the military. The Iraqi war deserter was recently court-martialed and sentenced to a year in Fort Sill’s military prison near Lawton. Amnesty International officials consider Mejia a "prisoner of conscience."

Mejia, who served in the Florida Army National Guard and has family in Miami, Fla., received a guilty verdict May 21 at Fort Stewart, Ga., for his refusal to return to the Iraqi war after his two-week furlough had ended. He spent about five months in hiding.

Mejia, stripped of his rank and given a bad conduct discharge, has said the war was "about oil supplies" and noted that Iraqi prisoners were treated "with great cruelty," a statement made before the Abu Ghraib scandal became public, according to the Associated Press. He also objected to the killing of Iraqi civilians.

Fort Sill officials denied the Oklahoma Gazette’s interview request — whether it be in person, via telephone or in writing — with Mejia, citing military regulations. It is not the first instance that the press has been denied access to Mejia, his Massachusetts-based attorney, Louis Font, told the Gazette. During the soldier’s court-martial trial, print and television journalists were not allowed to conduct interviews with Mejia.

"We submitted written requests and also verbal requests for him to be allowed to talk to reporters," Font said. "This is what the military was doing: Public Affairs at Fort Stewart, Ga., was telling reporters who called, because there literally is international attention on this case — people would call from Australia, all over Latin America, asking to interview him, and many reporters from the United States — ‘Oh, you can interview him off base; we don’t allow that on base by military regulations, but you can see him off base.’ And then they would tell him, ‘Well, we’re not letting you off base.’"

The logistical issues associated with shipping the soldier to Oklahoma are many, Font said. First and foremost, his defense lawyers and family must travel hundreds of miles to speak with him face-to-face. Code Pink, a social justice group, is helping Mejia’s family spearhead a defense fund, in part to help the family pay for visitations, as well as finance an apartment in the Lawton area, according to CodePink4peace.org.

"I believe it is punitive and vindictive for him to be taken so far from his family who lives in Miami and his supporters on the East Coast and the West Coast," Font told the Gazette.

On March 15, Mejia turned himself in to military authorities. He applied the next day for conscientious objector status, which, if granted, would have allowed him to be discharged on the grounds of morally opposing the war.

In an interview on "60 Minutes II," military officials said Mejia should have filed as a conscientious objector before going AWOL.

"For the military there is never a right time to submit a conscientious objector claim. They always object to the timing. They’ll even say, ‘Well, he went to war, and he should have filed before he went to war.’ Well, he wasn’t a conscientious objector then," Font said.

"They had the conscientious objector claim (March 16). They could have taken the administrative route of dealing with his situation, and instead, on March 26 — 10 days later — they charged him with desertion. And so they could have, if they had wanted to, simply processed his conscientious objector claim and not taken this into criminal channels, but they decided to take this into criminal channels and put him in prison and then continue to process his conscientious objector claim from his prison cell."

Right now, Font and other members of Mejia’s defense team, which includes former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, are working to appeal the verdict. Font said military appeals take longer than a year, and he has been told that the transcript, although the trial is only three days, will not be completed until September.

At 1 p.m. June 23 at Fort Sill’s military prison, a hearing is scheduled for Mejia’s conscientious objector claim, Font said. Several witnesses will be present Mejia’s behalf, including Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit, who will speak on Roman Catholic beliefs; Daniel Ellsberg, who released the Pentagon Papers; Nancy Lessin, co-founder of Military Families Speak Out; and Fernando Suarez del Solar, a supporter of Mejia whose Marine son died in Iraq. Font, who has practiced military law for 27 years, said he has "never heard of there being a conscientious objector hearing inside a prison."

Mejia, who is a citizen of Nicaragua and Costa Rica — not of the United States — had fulfilled an eight-year commitment with the military. Font said there is a provision in military law that a non-U.S. citizen cannot serve more more than eight years unless he or she applies for citizenship.

In a "60 Minutes II" interview prior to being sentenced, Mejia told CBS newsman Dan Rather that, after being deployed, he saw no justification for the war effort.

"When you look at the war, and you look at the reasons that took us to war, and you don’t find that any of the things that we were told that we’re going to war for turned out to be true, when you don’t find there are weapons of mass destruction, and when you don’t find that there was a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida, and you see that you’re not helping the people and the people don’t want you there," Mejia said in the interview.

The exclusive appearance on "60 Minutes II" in March was Mejia’s only on-camera interview while in hiding since mid-October 2003.

Oklahoma Gazette

In its inaugural issue of Oct. 15, 1979, Oklahoma Gazette, at that time an upstart, bimonthly publication with a mere 2,000 circulation, featured a page-one story about the Oklahoma City Council’s recent passage of an urban conservation district. Hardly sexy...
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