Capt. Robert Semrau dismissed from the Forces

Canadian soldier avoids jail time for shooting a wounded insurgent in Afghanistan (Updated)


[Updated: October 6, 7:21 a.m.]

A Canadian soldier has been kicked out of the army—but spared a stint in prison—for shooting a severely wounded insurgent on the battlefields of Afghanistan two years ago. Capt. Robert Semrau, whose controversial case sparked a nationwide debate about the ethics of mercy killing in a war zone, stood at the front of a packed courtroom Tuesday morning as a military judge announced his punishment: a demotion in rank, and dismissal from the Forces.

Semrau—who at one point faced the possibility of life behind bars, with no chance of parole for ten years—will not serve jail time for his “disgraceful conduct.” But his career in uniform is now over. “You failed in your role as a leader,” said the judge, Lt.-Col. Jean-Guy Perron. “How can we expect our soldiers to follow the rules of war if their officers do not?”

Countless Canadians have rallied behind Semrau since his arrest, convinced that he did the moral thing by putting a gravely injured insurgent “out of his misery” (a Facebook page set up in his honour has thousands of members). But Perron painted a very different portrait of the 36-year-old officer, saying he violated the military’s most basic rules of discipline and no longer deserves to serve. “Shooting a wounded, unarmed insurgent is so fundamentally contrary to our values, doctrine and training that it is shockingly unacceptable behaviour,” Perron said, pausing often to look Semrau in the eyes. “You made a decision that will cast a shadow on you for the rest of your life.”

A father of two young daughters, Semrau was on patrol in Helmand Province on the morning of Oct. 19, 2008 when his unit—a small band of Canadian troops mentoring a company of Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers—encountered an unidentified man lying on a dirt path. He had been shot out of a tree by a U.S. Apache helicopter, and in the words of one eyewitness, was “98 per cent” dead.

Canadian soldiers are bound by the Geneva Conventions and the military’s own code of conduct to offer First Aid to all casualties, friend or foe. But the senior Afghan officer on the scene decided that the man was too wounded to save, telling the others: “If Allah wants him, he will die. If not, he will live.” In his capacity as a mentor, Semrau had no authority to overrule the ANA commander.

But rather than leave the man to suffer his fate, Semrau made a difficult choice: he raised his C-8 rifle, aimed it at the insurgent’s chest, and pulled the trigger. According to numerous witnesses, he later confessed that it was a “mercy kill.”

When military investigators caught wind of the incident two months later, Semrau was charged with four offences, including second-degree murder and negligent performance of duty. He was arrested, flown home, and put on trial—the first Canadian soldier ever accused of homicide on the battlefield.

In July, however, a military jury found him guilty of only one count: disgraceful conduct. The members concluded that Semrau did indeed shoot the unarmed man, but with no corpse and no forensic evidence, they were not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that his bullets actually killed the insurgent.

For Semrau and his supporters, the verdict was bittersweet. Instead of life behind bars, the captain was now staring at a sentence of no worse than five years in prison. But the verdict fell far short of the complete exoneration he was hoping for—and all but assured that his days in uniform were numbered.

On Tuesday, that fact was confirmed. Perron opted against jail time, but demoted Capt. Semrau to second lieutenant (the lowest rank in the officer corps) and ordered his release from the army. “Your actions may have been motivated by an honest belief you were doing the right thing,” the judge said. “Nonetheless, you have committed a serious breach of discipline.”

Perron said the sentence strikes a proper balance between punishment and deterrence, and sends a strong message to the rank-and-file that every soldier is obliged to obey orders, not their own moral code. “Decisions based on personal values cannot prevail over lawful commands,” he said.

At one point, Perron specifically criticized Semrau for putting his subordinates in the difficult predicament of either tattling on their commander or keeping quiet, which is itself a punishable offence. “Your actions did have a negative impact on your team,” he said. “Capt. Semrau, I do not know if you have taken any time to reflect on this question in the last year. If not, do so.”

Semrau has never spoken publicly about what happened that morning two years ago, and even after his conviction he chose not to address the court. His sentencing hearing was no different. When the judge finished reading his reasons, Semrau stood at attention, saluted, and walked through a side door with his wife, his brother and his parents. He left the building without speaking to reporters.

“He’s very disappointed,” said Capt. David Hodson, one of his lawyers. “He’s a warrior. He would love to be serving the Canadian Forces and serving his country. He thanks you all and 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.”

Prosecutors had asked the judge for a sentence of two years less a day, plus a disgraceful dismissal; defence lawyers wanted a demotion and a stern letter of reprimand. Lt.-Col. Bruce MacGregor, director of military justice policy in the office of the Judge-Advocate General, said the military is satisfied with the court’s middle ground. “The military judge sent a message that discipline is the heart of leadership within the Canadian Forces,” he told reporters. “If we act outside of the rule of law as Canadian Forces members, we will have to take responsibility for it.”

Both sides have thirty days to appeal the sentence.


Capt. Robert Semrau dismissed from the Forces

  1. RIght, so now the Harper government and its military can strut around talking nonsense on how accountable they are to the people of Canada over misdeeds on the battlefield. What political frauds and imposters these treasonous pigs are. Meanwhile any whiff of scandal on the Harper Reform Party's part such as Afghan Detainee documents and suspicion of war crimes, the fact that female soldiers are raped in Kandahar by their own people, that Peter McKay has screwed over our men and women in Afghanistan with false promises….that all seems to just evaporate into thin air under the suppressive regime of Stephen Harper, a Reform Party political fraud and criminal.

    • Wow, you are really upset. I like all your choice words, they really emphasize how out of this world you are. The real issue at hand here is that a hero of our armed forces was canned because the West no longer knows how to fight a war. By the way, Stephen Harper had nothing to do with this trial.

      • Thank you citizen_CA for providing a cogent response to such uninformed babel. TELLITLIKEITIS, you do not understand what it is like to be a soldier, and in fact, only soldiers do. We should honour their efforts. That said, I trust our military leaders made the correct decision here; it is surely a decision they regret having to make, but one that must be made, regardless. We must respect the Geneva convention if we hope to preserve the dignity of warfare; this is why we deplore terrorism. I have compassion for the discharged member, and I am certain he regrets a likely impulsive decision to put a dying man out of his misery.
        -A military member, but not a soldier, per se.

        • just because he is not a soldier per se doesnt mean hes a left wing fag, we have medic, drivers engenieers you name it the miliatry has is, but no matter what their job is your a soldier first and have all one goal, to protect canada and human rights

      • This "hero" was canned because he disobeyed orders.

  2. TELLITLIKEITIS what are you talking ABOUT???

  3. I think that what he is saying is that there is a considerable amount of far far worse behaviour going on now in Afghanistan that is being covered up. And it is Capt. (not demoted in my mind) Semrau who has been prosecuted for not only a humanitarian act (putting a moribund person out of his misery) but also a militarily necessary act because he was on a mission with a patrol and could not break off to sit until this guy died. They had just come under fire, so calling for a helicopter would expose that to being shot down. Had he left the guy to die alone in agony, he would have never been prosecuted.

    This kangaroo court was a travesty. Our participation in Afghanistan is leading to much worse abuses that not only are unreported, but are actively covered up.

    Capt. Semrau was an exemplary and respected soldier. So now our forces have lost him. Another stupidity.

    • There is no evidence to support your claims that "worse abuses" are happening, or being covered up. People in the Forces take their jobs seriously – and they apply the law. This was a serious breach of militarly conduct, and the excuses given for it – which Capt. Semrau had all the opportunity in the world to argue at trial, did not excuse his conduct. This was a fair trial and a fair decision. Soldiers are not executioners.

      • As in any war there are atrocities as well as crime, un ethical behaviour and a host of other things that one or all may find offensive and or morally wrong. What you say "There is no evidence to support your claims" is a misguided response. There is always evidence, it's in whispers, hearsay and to coin a naval term "scuttle butt". There are soldiers not just Canadian soldiers that go through these abuses abroad as well as right here in Canada yet nothing is ever done due to fear, reprisal and shame. I am in no way trying to make excuses for what has happened, however I firmly believe as a Soldier myself that unless you have spent time in the Military and have been in harms way that you cannot and will not fully understand what goes through a soldiers mind. You will never understand what transpired unless your boots are on the ground and in the fight. What Capt Semrau may or may not have done was in BATTLE lets not forget that. AFGHANISTAN is a WAR zone and the insurgent that died was a COMBATANT trying to do HARM to COALITION FORCES. End state is that the soldier for the other side was rendered deceased is the finite product of the actuality of WAR!! So unless "YOU" have spent time in a WAR ZONE and have had that feeling of uncertainty, fear or adrenaline. it is a firm belief of most every soldier that you the one whom has a tendency to offer an opinion or complain about every thing we do will never truly understand why we the members of the Canadian Military do what we do when called upon not just by Canada but by the host of other nations who request the services of one of the "BEST FIGHTING FORCES" in the world. CAPT SEMRAU is and will be one of Canada's Hero's and has been made to be an example by bureaucracy.

        • Well said, Sir. You have put a front-line soldier's point of view.

          I can put a front-line physician's point of view. Far more frequently than anyone admits to, when faced with a dying patient in pain for whom no treatment is likely to save his life, heavy doses of opiates are given. The life is brought to a speedier end, but it is the humane thing to do. I hate to think of what would happen to such a physician if a disgruntled colleague made a formal complaint.

          As for warfare in Afghanistan: Kipling put it well
          "When you're left for wounded on Afghanistan's plains
          And the women come out to cut up your remains
          Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
          And go to your gawd like a soldier."

          The Afghanis on patrol with Capt Semrau woud have left the Talib to slowly die in agony. Militarily speaking he should have continued with the patrol,especially since enemy was in the vicinity. It would have been stupid to call a helicopter under these conditions and risk having it destroyed – and all for someone who would die anyway.

          Triage has always been used in war!! Moribund soldiers have been eased out when there are no resources to treat. I suppose Capt Semrau was entitled to a trial by his peers — people who have actually served in the front lines in Afghanistan.

  4. Capt. (still, in my view) Semrau should be honoured. The Afghan soldiers wrapped the victim's head in a scarf and left him to die. If they had carried out their original plan to simply walk away, nobody would have been the wiser, but the victim would have suffered, although not for long according to the evidence. The victim was beyond saving. Capt. Semrau was the ONLY one that day that did the right thing.

    • Not according to the soldiers who conducted the trial. He did not live up to the standards of Canadian soldiers and he has paid the appropriate price.


  5. Let's get the facts straight – the story above makes it sound like they just "encountered" the wounded man, and then Semrau, on the spot, like some robot, shot him. NOT QUITE. Soldiers from the Afghan forces, who were fighting alongside the Canadians, found the man, decided he was beyond saving, and wrapped his head in a scarf, some would consider this a sign of respect. The entire group of soldiers, including Capt. Semrau then continued on their mission. Capt. Semrau, obviously feeling for the victim's anguish, thought better of leaving a man to suffer, and backtracked, with one soldier and one interpreter. Only then, did he fire (what the jury said may not have been) the fatal shot. This is a travesty of a decision.

  6. "that it is shockingly unacceptable behaviour" — if someone shot you multiple times and had no choice but to leave you to bleed out, alone in the desert, you'd beg for a bullet. Good for you Capt. Semrau, you did the right thing.

    You're the victim of a military and government trying to appear just and tough on war crime in the face of accusations of complicit torture, rape and real war crimes; without actually having to own up to any of it.

  7. My Thoughts and Prayers go out to Captain Semrau and his family. I do not have much respect for the military courts. I think what they did was very wrong. They are using Captain Sermrau as a scape goat and I think as I said is very wrong.

  8. I certainly feel for Mr. Semrau. He was doing what he thought was the right and honourable thing to do. But under a rule of law and under military discipline of Canada mercy killing is illegal. Yes, sometimes it is moral to break the law, but that has implications that a person must face. If Mr. Semrau felt and still feels that his action was the best thing to do, he needs to also accept the consequences that he cannot continue as a soldier in the Canadian Armed Forces. I feel the Military court really did bend over backwards in applying the extenuating circumstances to lower the level of punishment from life imprisonment for second degree murder to simply firing him from his job. They could do no better.

    • They could have done better. They could have passed a suspended sentence.

      Capt. Semrau is a scapegoat, as someone has said. From my point of view, the government is acting as an accessory to much more horrible acts — real crimes — by covering up and censoring.

      • Mr. Adams put it well; The rule exists, and there was no defence for the crime. It does not matter if the law is antiquated or unrealistic, it is still a rule and is expected to be followed by all members of the CF. That being said, I believe he made the right choice, or at least the best one. This was a series of no win decisions – First for the (Former) Captain, then for his subordinates and finally for the court. I do not believe any group took it lightly and I believe the court did their best. This could have gone a lot worse and I hope Mr. Semrau will be able to sleep nights content in the knowledge he did was was right. At the end of the day you are accountable to yourself and what ever power to which you prescribe. Mr. Semrau, while breaking the law, did what was right in his eyes. That being said, I believe the punishment fit the crime and I hope that everyone can soon forget this regrettable incident.

    • Don't EVER call a Captain Mr. …got it? Asshole

  9. A situation filled with horror, truly. Is it a humanitarian act to put someone "out of his misery" as you would put down a suffering animal? Well, that is where I struggle because, that act, while intended as a mercy takes away whatever final thoughts might have been required as part of the process of dying.

    I'm sure that there have been many "mercy killings' during wars. I'm equally sure that many soldiers have been dragged back behind their own lines by their conrades, only to die soon afterward.

    In the end, I feel he made a decision that was not his to make, but the punishment was perhaps overly severe.

    • I like your comment a lot, and agree with much of it — but why was the punishment too severe? He lost his job. Seems fitting. He's a young guy, he can learn a new career and raise his family. But his kids won't have the stigma of a dad in prison. I really don't see this as too severe. How could he ever return to his duties? Who would respect his judgement any longer? These soldiers are in life and death situations — they deserve ultimate confidence in their officers, no?

      • From what I have read, it seems that Capt Semrau has the confidence of his soldiers — but not the top brass out of combat.

  10. anyone now considering joining the CAF should remeber this travesty of justice

    what a complete sham this is

  11. This sentence is a travesty of military "justice" Sir, hold your head high, you did what you had to do at that moment in time and no court run by a bunch of bureaucrats masquerading as soldiers has any right to question your decision. The Capt is the kind of leader that I would want to lead my section into battle. Shame on the Military…

  12. Ok let me get this right….the closest any of us have come to "War" is when we watch news packs on tv or maybe a long drawn out doc…..and we somehow have a great understanding what its like to be fighting in a war zone….its about choices on the battlefield folks….the insurgent sniper(s) were there for a reason…to wound and possibly kill the Canadian and Afghan soldiers….its us or them….would you rather have been mourning another death of a Canadian soldier or kill the bad guy….think about it for a second….thats the first point….the second point, the main one being discussed here…..did Semrau commit a crime by putting the haji out of his misery….IMHO….he acted out of compassion by not letting the insurgent combatant suffer….many would argue that thats not his call to make…to all those and the kangaroo court that passed the verdict – I say – go fight in a war and see whats it like…and whether you still think Semrau did the wrong thing.

  13. I use to believe canada had a role to play in the war in afghanistan, but the way Captain Semeau was treated leads me to believe we should bring our remaining soldiers home. I'm not computor sav vy, but is someone out there knowledgeable enough to set up a we page for citizens to sign a petition "DEMANDING THE IMMEDIATE RE-INSTATEMENT AND PROMOTION BACK TO CAPTAIN FOR CAPTAIN SAMEAU" This petition should be addressed to the entire House of Commons. Remember, Captain Semeau was fighting for all of us, and now he requires us to fight for him. We don't have to fight with guns or worry about being killed by the brutal taliban, our weapon is our signature, or we can cower down, and hang him out to dry.

  14. What Canadians "feel" has nothing to do with how the military operates. Or we wouldn't likely be there in the first place.

    Again — he lost his job. Robert Latimer went to prison for many years for his mercy killing of his daughter. Semrau can work again, and raise his family. He was fired — lots of people are fired for much less. And many in his position, which he put himself in to, would not only be fired but go to jail too.

  15. Amazing, RCMP members kill (murder?) Canadian civilians and it seems to be A-OK but let a Candian soldier do something on a battlefield and the cowardly politically correct crowd take over. Putrid.

  16. Question to all.

    Does any one here think timi taliban would show us the same courtesy and respect? I think not. If they had the chance they would show no mercy and gladily severe the head of a CANADIAN SOLDIER or coalition soldier with a dull knife and put it on you tube or al jaherra for all to see.

    Do you guys actually think if they had called it in a medivac helicopter would actually come in to evacuate a person who is "98% dead"? I think not. Capt Semarau did the honourable thing to put the guy out of his misery. I would not want that on my conscience knowing that I left a man to die in +40 degree temperature.

    Lesson learnt, any soldier who comes across such situations should call it in and see how many choppers would come out. I can guarantee it the higher ups in the chain of command would think twice about spending the queens taxes on an enemy who is 98% dead. At least you would have a name and a rank to send the poop up stream. I can bet now that would be covered up. we need more wiki leaks i tell you

    For those of you who are saying the "Sir" did the wrong thing i would bet my bottom dollar would beg to have a bullet put in them giving the conditions the dying person was in.

    In parting for those who thinks the "Sir" was wrong, i say this to you. "HE WHO is WITHOUT SIN SHOULD CASTE THE FIRST STONE"!!

  17. What this example has shown us all is that there will be no mercy shown to those who show compassion so do not do it no matter how strong your inclination may be. It is a sad commentary that the safer action is to do nothing to alleviate human suffering. This solider would have been much more cruel and more of a coward to have let his enemy suffer and he would have kept his job.

  18. My first reaction was emotional – a brave and humane soldieris being used as a scapegoat. But then I remember what Clausewitz said about the link between war and politics. If the Armed Forces had refused to prosecute or had found Capt Semrau not guilty, it would have given the terrorists of the world a propaganda victory. And this is a war for hearts and minds. So the court settled for convicting him of the least of the charges and imposing a very mild punishment compared to what might have happened to him. Political necessity is an ugly thing, but the key word is necessity. The best any of us can do now is to try and help the Semrau family in starting a new life. Is there any possibility of setting up a fund for this good man?

  19. Captain Semrau has indeed been made a scapegoat in the cause of political correctness. This farcical court martial should never have been allowed to get this far. I cannot believe the stupidity and arrogance of the judge in asking If Capt. Semrau had thought about his actions and if he had not, directing him to do so. Does he not think of the anguish Capt Semrau and his family must have suffered over the last 21 months. He also said Capt. Semrau chose not to speak so he doesn't know how he views what happened. Of course he's not going to admit anything or they would have used that as a reason to convict him of murder. The Canadian military have lost a fine officer, capable of showing initiative and compassion – shame on them.

    • and the worst thing is that the coward that gave him up is still in the Forces…

      • Not to worry… I would not want to be in his shoes…A ''rat '' is the lowest life form there is besides a rapist…you can rest assured that this individual will not have a pleasant stay at Camp…too bad….

  20. I think that Captain Samrau should be aquitted of all charges against him. What he did may have been illegal in some peoples eyes, but it was humane..Send the Boy Scouts to Afghanistan to do the fighting.These armchair soldiers make me sick. Signed,Gerry,Ottawa

  21. Can anyone justify the actions taken against Cpt. Samrau? I know the reasons are political, but that does not justify the gross mistreatement of a fine Canadian soldier. We are at war with a brutal stoneage mob who are brainwashed to the nth degree, who have no morals, and take great pleasure in torturing Nato troops. The only rules of engagement they have is to kill and/or maim as many infidels as possible. We, on the other hand, must operate under the rules of the Geneva Convention. The Canadian generals and politicans are quick to condemn our soldiers for conduct unbecomming. As a onetime staunch supporter of our efforts in Afghanistan, I now believe we should bring our soldiers home as quickly as possible and never deploy them to a war zone again. Hats off to the brave, demoralized Canadian soldiers who are damned if they do and damned if they don't while the military brass and politicians attend their cocktail parties!!

    • In case you haven’t heard yet, the Geneva Convention was put on hold by the US/NATO for the “war on terror”.

  22. This is a travesty of justice, made to order by self-serving, liberal, jerks. The CAPTAIN deserves a medal for his compassion for an enemy in severe distress.

  23. i think what he did was right because he was allmost dead he was going to die anyways

  24. Of course, when I came to this conclusion, I also heard a voice in my head: "Wait a second. Weren't a lot of Nazi troops, who were executed or imprisoned for war crimes, just really doing the same thing?" I know the situation and context are different, but think about it. In conclusion, we can't really expect mercy killing to become acceptable, for the same reason euthinasia is not acceptable in Canada — our courts, politicans, and laws are just not ready for it. But don't worry, the people in high places can't live forever. Be patient, friends.

  25. I have to sympathize with both sides. On the one side, of course the Captain did the right and merciful, moral thing – ended the suffering of a dying man. Of course we will feel a bit outraged by the court bringing any force against him, and firing from his job, but this is kind of the optimal outcome. First, they really watered down the charges against him, and after that, really took it easy on his punishment, when you think about it. Next, think of the principle of the matter: It is important that our soldiers follow thier orders. If we let soldiers think that thier moral codes and ideas are above the orders given to them, we risk having troops which may potentially commit other types of offences in the feild and think they can get away with it by the same token. This decision sends a signal to troops to follow orders, no matter how conflicted you are. That principle is an important one to uphold.

  26. I can’t even come close to casting judgement against this guy as I have never been put in the situation of seeing someone writhing in pain close to death.

    There is no easy middle ground on issues like this.  Semrau was placed in a no win situation.Perhaps we can equip our soldiers with powerful doses of morphine so that in cases like this where life saving intervention isn’t feasible, soldiers can do the “merciful” thing without actually killing someone.

  27. We send our young men and women into hateful theatres of war, TO KILL the enemy. This is an enemy which has vowed to destroy our way of life everywhere, NOT just Afghanistan.

    When they do, we bring them home and SUE THEM? C

    Captain Semrau should be given medal for his service and retired to full pension. He should Not be disgraced this way by self-righteous-politically-correct-sanctimonious progressive insanity.

  28. Rather than be side tracked into this narrow issue of whether this was mercy killing or an execution; I feel Canadians shd question why our soldiers are fighting a proxy war in a land they don’t know, a people they don’t understand & where they are regarded as occupiers nor saviours?

  29. Things happen in war that are difficult to deal with. Most comments here are about whether anyone else would/should do the same thing in the same circumstance. I myself don’t think anyone can say, but we can say that we KNOW DAMN WELL that things happen in war and that we should not choose war lightly. We are all responsible to some degree.

  30. Very sad Captain Semaru and I enlisted at the same time. He is an awesome guy.