Viewing a “murdered” Taliban fighter - Macleans.ca
 

Viewing a “murdered” Taliban fighter

A jury lays eyes on Capt. Robert Semrau’s alleged victim


 

Capt. Robert Semrau is accused of executing a severely wounded Taliban fighter who, eighteen months later, remains anonymous. Military investigators never found the man’s corpse (they tried) and his name is still a mystery. One of the only pieces of evidence that proves this person actually existed is a nine-minute cell phone video shot by an Afghan soldier. On Monday afternoon, that grainy footage was played at Semrau’s court martial for the first time.

Exactly what it reveals is equally grainy.

According to the prosecution’s version of events, Semrau decided that the insurgent was too injured to save, and—after the camera stopped rolling—pumped two bullets into his chest as an act of “mercy.” The video, however, is hardly a smoking gun. It does depict a bearded man lying on a dirt path, a chunk of his left leg severed and bloody. But the person on the screen does not look wounded. He looks dead. Someone had the decency to cover him with a light blue blanket, and another man can be seen lifting his limp right arm off his face. But not once does he moan or groan or even open his eyes. And as any good lawyer will attest, a person who is already dead can’t be murdered.

On the opening day of Semrau’s trial, the lead prosecutor, Capt. Tom Fitzgerald, also promised jurors that the video would show Afghan National Army soldiers spitting and kicking sand on the “wounded” Talib—all while the captain lingered in the background. Yet the clip reveals no sign of such abuse.

Of course, something else is missing from the footage: First Aid. The Crown claims Semrau violated both the Geneva Conventions and the Canadian Forces Code of Conduct, which compel troops to provide medical care to every battlefield casualty—friend or foe. Fitzgerald will certainly suggest that the video proves his suspicion.

But the central accusation—that Semrau took it upon himself to put a dying man out of his agony—will not be settled by video replay. It will come down to the testimony of two supposed eyewitnesses, including Cpl. Steven Fournier, a fellow Canadian soldier who was with Semrau on the morning of Oct. 19, 2008 and—like the cell phone recording—made his courtroom debut on Monday.

Fournier has already told investigators that the mystery man was indeed alive, and that he photographed his face for intelligence purposes. Moments later, he said, Semrau told him to “turn around” because “you should not have to see this.” Fournier then heard two gunshots, wheeling back around just in time to see Semrau closing the ejection port of his C-8 rifle. (The other eyewitness, an Afghan interpreter nicknamed “Max,” is expected to testify that he saw the second bullet pierce the unarmed man.)

Most of Monday’s testimony was spent discussing Fournier’s career, his training—and a suggestion from previous witnesses that he is an unmotivated, out-of-shape “loner” who preferred video games and junk food over his mandatory morning jog. Fournier admitted that he “struggled with” running, and that Semrau, a former personal trainer, offered to help him improve his diet and shed some pounds.

“Did you follow through on this dietary regime?” Fitzgerald asked.

“Yes I did, sir,” Fournier answered.

Like Semrau, Fournier was part of a four-man Operational Mentor Liaison Team (OMLT) attached to a company of Afghan National Army troops. The team’s job was to “advise” the Afghans on basic soldiering skills, but they had no authority to give orders. “Not once would you ever give the ANA an order,” Fournier said. “If you ever gave the ANA an order they would shut you out and ignore you.” The morning that body was found, their OMLT team was among hundreds of ANA troops trolling for Taliban in Helmand Province. The court has already heard that the Afghan commander saw the body, declared his fate to be “in Allah’s hands,” and told his men to move on. Whether Semrau had the authority to ignore that order is expected to be a key question as the trial unfolds.

As for medical care, Fournier testified that Canadian soldiers are trained not to distinguish between casualties. “If you have a wounded Canadian and a wounded Afghan, the worst gets treatment first,” he said. Fitzgerald then asked him to clarify the protocol if one person—an enemy—is wounded. “You treat them as you would treat anyone else, sir,” Fournier answered.

Semrau, a father of two young daughters, has pleaded not guilty to all four charges, including second-degree murder. If convicted, he faces a mandatory life sentence with no chance of parole for ten years.

The trial continues Tuesday.


 

Viewing a “murdered” Taliban fighter

  1. You really wonder just how much influence the Geneva Convention has on the overall culture of war and the actions of the men and women in the trenches. How much of the law is ingrained into the officers/soldiers and how much might be overlooked or disregarded. Is this common practice or an isolated incident?

    The current Afghan Detainee issue in our Parliament makes one question what is happening…

    • It's much more efficient, as well as reliable, to recruit people with a sense of right and wrong than to try to ingraine an artificial set of international laws into the soldiers.

      Of course, to have such recruits available you need to raise children that way. Raising them to believe that right and wrong are arbitrary doesn't cut it.

    • let me guess, all seven of you vote liberal, have never served or had to kill a man. Law? Geneva convention? not heavily thought of while taking fire or watching a man die. STOP THINKING IT TO DEATH. IT'S WAR. Try moving a little right of severe left wing. The boy's I served with from other countries come mostly to the same conclusion, this trial could only happen in canada. cpl s Miller

  2. Got a good means to test for that? One that can be applied cheaply and effectively by our military?

  3. We should be pinning a medal on him instead of trying to put him in prison. Soldiers know that action in the battlefield doesn't always fit neatly into the rules.

    If the Taliban had been killed instead of mortally wounded, then there would be no issue. I wager that this same kind of act of mercy has happened numerous times during the Afghan conflict without charges being laid.

    This is a miscarriage of justice.

  4. Right. So while I'll agree it may be more reliable, given how most of our soldiers are already of fine character, and how we can train for law, I'd argue against it being more efficient. You're looking at imposing a lag time of up to two years between recruitment and field deployment. I don't think that's feasible or efficient.

  5. If he shot a wounded man on the ground simply to put him out of his misery, it's murder. Whether it has happened before is beside the point.

  6. Yet as you point out.. even that's not going to be 100%. We have very few mistakes as it is (or at least I like to hope so.. very few are reported at any rate) so the added lag this would impose I don't think would make enough of a difference to be worth it.

  7. For one thing, you don't have to turf people who don't make the cut. You just don't assign them to duty in combat zones.

    As to whether it's worth it, that depends on how much of a premium one places on such things as soldiers summarily executing or torturing prisoners. I consider that cost to be pretty damn high, not just ethically but also in terms of national morale and military effectiveness.

    Anyway, as I said above, the fundamental problem is with our society. The soldiers are drawn from the population – they will generally have the same virtues and vices as the public.

  8. What a load of BS this trial is. He killed a severely wounded fighter, who minutes before was no doubt trying to kill them, and allowed his unit to continue with the mission. Love the lefty bleeding hearts here trying to play general and judging whether it was murder or not. It's war you morons, not some university classroom from which I doubt many of you have left mentally.

  9. Simple as that eh? You make it sound like this was a shooting on Younge street and not the wild west where no quarter is given by the enemy. The fact that any of you give a damn about the well being of the Taliban just goes to show how weeny this country has become. Go back to your latte.

  10. (A) I'm curious, are you actually from Kinburn, the little town near Carp in Ontario?
    (B) You'd be the first ever to call me a lefty bleeding heart. It burns…. But moving on, even in war one doesn't kill unnecessarily. If the fighter was still fighting then sure, kill him. Or if the patrol couldn't take prisoners, sure. Or if the fighter has been court-martialed and found guilty of some capital offense. But you don't just pop the guy out of convenience after he's helpless and wounded – that is not war, since war is the organized use of force on enemy combatants to stop their aggression.

    Also, you can't have it all three ways. Either he was killed out of "mercy", in which case the soldier is too much of a bleeding heart, or he was killed to allow his unit to complete the mission (no problem there), or he was killed for convenience/spite. Make up your mind.

    • A)Damn I thought I came up with some mythical place that doesn't exist.
      B)Didn't realize I was calling YOU a lefty but since you responded on the defensive I have to wonder. From what I've read the fighter was mortally wounded (aka f'up) and the patrol would have ended if they had to wait for a medivac. The guy was dying, was kicked by ANA soldiers, so he was put out of his misery and the patrol was allowed to carry on What blows my mind is that the Geneva Convention applies to the Taliban who do not identify themselves with uniforms or even an armband. In the old days they would be shot as spies. Anyway I hope our boys pull out of this mess as scheduled-you can't fight a war under these conditions.

    • You are a left wing pain in the ass. You have never served or watched a man die like that. Ive done both proudly. Stop talking, you dont know what you;re talking about. When an m 134 mini gun shreds a man and you have to see the aftermath, then yes you do pop the fool out of mercy. they woud'nt do us the same honour. Now go away and vote liberal/NDP cry baby. I,m cpl S miller/ 18 months in afganastan

  11. A wise man once told me that, "everything is simple to someone who doesn't know what he's talking about".

    War is messy and dirty and doesn't conform to a nice set of rules. If we expect our soldiers to be pure hearts, then we shouldn't train them to kill in the first place. We should train them to shower the enemy with love and die like martyrs.

    It's so easy to be self-righteous when you don't have to get your hands dirty.

  12. Violence used to stop aggression against the innocent can be a good thing, which is why there is no inherent contradiction between soldiers being pure hearts and also killing bad guys. There is a time to turn the other cheek (namely when only one's own wellbeing is at stake) and a time to fight like hell (namely when someone else's wellbeing is at stake). Soldiers are trained for the latter.

    However, there when killing an enemy fighter is unnecessary to the mission, what does it have to do with war? If it's not for the mission, it's not for the war. And if it's not for the war, it's murder.

  13. There seems to be one important issue that some people seem to forget!.Capt Robert Semrau is innocent until proven guilty.Personally this trial is a farce and should never have taken place..

  14. That's actually a very pertinent question. I think the only reliable method is to have a probationary period of at least a couple of years during which recruits are not sent on any combat missions, but are in constant training and assessment. You can get a pretty good picture of someone's character if you're living and working with them every day under stressful conditions for a long period of time.

    Combined with training this might be feasible, but it relies on someone at the top of the chain of command choosing with great care the officers who make the assessments for their reliable character judgment and objectivity. It also relies on a ruthless standard for those passed on to active duty.

    Effective? Sure. Cheap? You get what you pay for….or at least you can't generally get more than you pay for.

  15. It's not more efficient in terms of getting people into the field. However it is more efficient in terms of reducing incidents of serious misconduct in the long term.

    I think our soldiers are a notch better in character than the rest of our society (on average), but our society is neither very virtuous nor very well-informed about concept of objective morality. Consequently we cannot be surprised when our soldiers make serious misjudgments by considering only the immediate circumstances rather than general moral principles. This (alleged) mercy-killing case is one such example. If the soldiers came from a society in which killing the vulnerable and harmless was rightly understood to be reprehensible they would likely not do it even when circumstances seem to call for it.

  16. Apparently, the injured man was not moving and not making any sounds (i.e. unconscious, if even alive) before being shot twice in the chest. It seems the defense team is using these descriptions to suggest that the man was already dead. How they plan to explain what exactly motivated Captain Semrau to put two bullets into a dead man's chest should be interesting.

    If were still alive, would accelerating his death by a matter of seconds or minutes constitute mercy?

    Semrau failed to correctly assess his situation, not having determined that the plug who's ass he'd been riding for months for being overweight would dream of accusing him of any wrongdoing when he decided to play God or John Wayne or whatever the hell went through his twisted mind.

    Sometimes shit just comes back to bite you in the ass, eh?

  17. Apparently, the injured man was not moving and not making any sounds (i.e. unconscious, if even alive) before being shot twice in the chest. It seems the defense team is using these descriptions to suggest that the man was already dead. How they plan to explain what exactly motivated Captain Semrau to put two bullets into a dead man's chest should be interesting.

    If were still alive, would accelerating his death by a matter of seconds or minutes constitute mercy?

    Semrau failed to correctly assess his situation, not having determined that the plug who's butt he'd been riding for months for being overweight would dream of accusing him of any wrongdoing when he decided to play God or John Wayne or whatever the heck went through his twisted mind.

    Sometimes things just come back to bite you in the rear, eh?

    • "Twisted mind"? I have no idea why fine citizens don their uniform to defend jackasses like this. Comparing this soldier to God and John Wayne is a nice touch.

    • Another week kneed lefty, you've never served,cant stop thinking/ talking this to death. This is what we do in war. TWISTED MIND? How manymen have you seen shredded by an m134 mini gun? That's what i thought, none. This is a courtesy real men extend to one and other in war. until you've served in one shut you're mouth. Go back to using for shouting NDP SLOGANS. cpl S . Miller 18 months in afganistan p.s Police are actually borderline sociopaths, soldiers are not. Try worrying about that.

  18. @XRCR
    you said: How they plan to explain …

    The defense team does not have to explain anything: the right to remain silent applies. In order to convict for murder the prosecution will have to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that the injured Taliban was in fact not dead. There is no body therefore no autopsy. The witness testimony is being tested in court. How did they (as they claim) establish that the injured Taliban was alive? Is the method fallible? Much is unknown.

  19. Something that everyone seems to be forgetting is that this was the location of a firefight. I am sure that if you looked around there were alot of shell casings. It seems unlikely that the prosecution will be able to prove beyond any level of doubt that he is guilty. The point about the Geneva Convention is a good one. How do you engage an enemy as a soldier when they don't identify themselves and the make no effort to avoid targetting civilians? I find Gaunilon's arguement interesting because he said it is okay to murder as a matter of expediance but not as an act of mercy. I personally would disagree with killing someone that was not actively trying to kill me. If he was a wounded as reported it is unlikely medical care would have helped him. Even morphine could've killed a man that unstable. There are too many questions and even contradictions in this case to know beyond a reasonable doubt what occured so perhaps we should not judge or call people twisted.

  20. You are a left wing pain in the ass. You have nevcer served or watched a man die like that. Ive done both proudly. Stop talking, you dont know what you;re talking about. When an m 134 mini gun shreds a man and you have to see the aftermath, then yes you do pop the fool out of mercy. they woud'nt do us the same honour. Now go away and vote liberal/NDP cry baby. I,m cpl S miller/ 18 months in afganastan