Two years after shooting a severely wounded enemy fighter on the battlefields of Afghanistan, Capt. Robert Semrau has finally received his punishment: a demotion in rank, and dismissal from the Canadian Forces. The 36-year-old infantry officer—whose controversial case sparked a furious, nationwide debate about the ethics of mercy killing in a war zone—will not spend any time in a prison cell. But his career in uniform is now over.
Well, almost over.
It will take a few weeks to fill out all the paperwork, and until then, Semrau (now officially a second lieutenant) will continue reporting for duty at CFB Petawawa—setting the stage for what is sure to be an awkward farewell tour. The judge may have said that he “failed as a leader” and behaved in a “shockingly unacceptable” fashion, but the Moose Jaw, Sask., native remains a respected figure within the rank and file of his regiment, as evidenced by the dozens of fellow officers who lined the gallery at his Oct. 5 sentencing hearing. And sometime over the next month, when he leaves the base for the last time, there will be plenty of hugs and handshakes to go around.
Even the judge, Lt.-Col. Jean-Guy Perron, conceded he had trouble understanding how a captain with such a stellar reputation could be standing before him, convicted of opening fire on an unarmed man. “By all accounts,” he told Semrau, “your conduct before and after this incident has been exemplary.”
But despite any lingering sympathy for a man who found himself in an impossible situation, Perron’s ruling was a clear victory for military prosecutors—and the entire chain of command. Although the Crown wanted him to serve two years in jail on top of a dismissal, the final sentence could not have sent a stronger message: soldiers are obliged to follow orders, not their own moral codes.
“Your actions may have been motivated by an honest belief you were doing the right thing,” Perron said. “Nonetheless, you have committed a serious breach of discipline.”
That serious breach occurred in Helmand province on Oct. 19, 2008, when Semrau’s unit—a small band of Canadian troops mentoring a company of Afghan National Army soldiers—discovered an unidentified man lying on a dirt path. He had been shot by a U.S. Apache helicopter, and in the words of one eyewitness, was “98 per cent” dead.
Soldiers are bound by the Geneva Conventions and the Canadian military’s own code of conduct to administer first aid to all casualties, friend or foe. Instead, Semrau raised his rifle and fired two bullets into the man’s chest, later telling comrades that he “couldn’t live with myself” if he left the insurgent to suffer.
There is no defence in law for mercy killing.
When word of the incident surfaced two months later, Semrau was charged with four offences, including second-degree murder, which carries an automatic life sentence with no chance of parole for 10 years. But in July, a military panel found him guilty of only one charge: disgraceful conduct. The jury concluded Semrau shot the man, but were not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the captain’s bullets actually led to his death. (No body was ever recovered.)
A disgraceful conduct charge carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison, but Perron concluded that kicking Semrau out of the army was enough to deter others from repeating his mistake. “Decisions based on personal values cannot prevail over lawful commands,” the judge said. “You made a decision that will cast a shadow on you for the rest of your life.”
A life that will now be spent in civilian clothes.