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.