The son of a revolutionary Nicaraguan musician — who says he deserted from the U.S. Army to avoid killing civilians or torturing prisoners in Iraq — is the first war veteran to face an American court-martial for refusing further duty in that conflict-torn country.
Army Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia, 28, whose jury trial began Wednesday in Fort Stewart, Ga., also is the first soldier to file for conscientious objector status since the war began.
If found guilty of desertion, Mejia faces a year in prison and a bad- conduct discharge.
Mejia’s father, Carlos Mejia Godoy, is Nicaragua’s most famous singer/songwriter. He participated as a cultural ambassador in the Sandinista revolution that overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in 1979 and wrote the Sandinista hymn. The soldier’s uncle, Luis Enrique Mejia Godoy, also is an internationally acclaimed singer/songwriter. The brothers have played in the Bay Area several times.
Mejia’s older brother, San Francisco resident Carlos Alexis Mejia, says Camilo did not enlist in the Army in 1995 to defy his revolutionary father.
“He just wanted to get his education paid for,” said Carlos Alexis, a 31- year-old rock guitarist. He is an aspiring poet, a vegetarian, a peaceful guy. It’s weird for us.”
Mejia is a dual citizen of Nicaragua and Costa Rica, the latter his mother’s birthplace. He settled in Miami in the early 1990s and, like about 40, 000 American soldiers, is not a U.S. citizen but is a permanent resident.
Mejia is restricted to the Fort Stewart base and is barred from speaking with individual reporters. But one of his attorneys, Tod Ensign, says his client deserted during a furlough in the United States after witnessing American soldiers kill a 10-year-old boy and after being ordered to “soften up” prisoners for interrogation at al Assad airbase near the Baghdad airport by using sleep-deprivation tactics on blindfolded Iraqis.
“The fighting and killing of civilians and illegal interrogations were the primary reasons” for Mejia’s desertion, said Ensign, who also is the director of Citizen Soldier, a nonprofit GI advocacy group based in New York.
Former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, another Mejia lawyer, said that in at least one instance, a pistol was cocked next to prisoners’ heads. “We’re prosecuting soldiers over there for the very thing we’re prosecuting him (Mejia) for not going back over there to do,” Clark told reporters during a break in the day-long hearing.
Ensign and Clark tried to make Mejia’s court-martial a test case for soldiers who are adamant about avoiding duties that would constitute war crimes. “When you don’t respect international standards, the kind of things that happened at Abu Ghraib happen,” he said.
The judge, however, Col. Gary Smith, ruled Wednesday that the special court-martial would be limited to whether Mejia deserted when he refused to return to duty.
On Wednesday, co-counsel Louis Font also argued that the military should not have accepted Mejia because a 19th century treaty between the United States and Costa Rica exempts Costa Rican citizens from “compulsory service” in the U.S. military. Judge Smith denied that motion as well after Capt. A. J. Balbo, the lead prosecutor, said Mejia never requested an exemption before his court-martial and voluntarily went to fight in Iraq, where he accepted a promotion.
Mejia is a reservist with the Florida National Guard; he served in the Sunni triangle from April to October last year with Charlie Company of the 124th Infantry Regiment. When he returned on a two-week furlough, he went into hiding for five months before surrendering in Massachusetts with the help of the Peace Abbey, an anti-war organization.
When he returned to Florida in March, he told reporters: “I don’t think we’re fighting terror in Iraq. I think we’re fighting a war for oil, based on lies — lies about weapons of mass destruction, and connections between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda.”
He also told the Miami Herald: “I am not against the military. The military has been my family. My commanders are not evil but this war is evil. I did not sign up for the military to go halfway around the world to be an instrument of oppression.”
Teresa Panepinto, the GI rights program coordinator for the Oakland-based Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, says the Mejia case may be a harbinger of things to come. She says that 25 percent of the 3,000 calls her group’s hot line receives monthly are questions about the consequences of going AWOL. Fourteen percent are about how to apply for conscientious objector status.
“We are hearing more and more from soldiers who have come back from Iraq, ” said Panepinto, whose nonprofit organization counsels members of the armed forces on how to get out of the military. “The vast majority seem to be severely traumatized and looking at their options.”
Several have even left for Canada, conjuring up images of Vietnam.
Last January, Army Pvt. Jeremy Hinzman from the 82nd Airborne Division became the first American soldier to seek asylum in Canada. In March, he was followed by another 82nd Airborne private, Brandon Hughey. They have been granted temporary residence in Canada, and hearings will be held on their cases this summer.
Army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Pamela Hart said that since 2002, there have been 88 requests for conscientious objector status, 48 of which were approved. She also said the Army recorded 2,762 desertions last year, a significant drop from 2002, when 4,007 deserted. “The numbers show that (the desertion rate) is not based solely on being at war and that there are other issues,” she said.
Carlos Alexis Mejia said his brother joined the Florida National Guard in 1998 following a three-year hitch with the Army and was several months away from graduating from the University of Miami with a degree in psychology, and completing his eight-year military obligation, when the United States invaded Iraq.
Attorney Ensign says Mejia went to Iraq hoping he would be home in less than three months because noncitizens are not allowed to serve in the Army longer than eight years. “He had 70 days left and figured he would keep his head down until they shipped him home,” said Ensign.
But, like tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers, Mejia got caught up in the Pentagon’s “stop-loss” orders, which keep troops in Iraq to stave off troop depletion through retirement and discharge.
In March, Carlos Alexis Mejia flew to Massachusetts to join his famous father at a pacifist service in support of his kid brother. Always the revolutionary, Mejia Godoy performed one of his most well-known compositions – – “Missa Campesina,” or “Peasant Mass,” a piece that draws on the ideas of liberation theology and views religion in Latin America from the perspective of the poor and the oppressed.
“My father knows that Camilo enlisted to further his education,” said Carlos Alexis Mejia, whose band, La Raza Oculta, will perform a benefit concert on June 5 at the Women’s Building in San Francisco to raise money for his brother’s defense fund. “He is proud that his son is willing to stand by his principles and face whatever consequences.”
05/20/2004 Jack Epstein, commondreams.org