WILLIAM WEBSTER, a US Army sergeant and Muslim convert, was just months from completing his 20-year military career when his unit was ordered to Iraq last autumn.
He immediately offered to leave early, saying that his religious beliefs prohibited him from fighting fellow Muslims in what he regarded as “an unjust war”. Senior officers persuaded him to stay on in a desk job in Germany until his service ended.
Two days before his unit left, the same officers ordered him to join the deployment. When he refused, he was brought before a court martial and jailed for 14 months. He was stripped of his rank, and lost his salary and pension.
Now, in a case that Amnesty International sees as an important test, his British wife, Sue, a teacher in Birmingham, is appealing for him to be recognised as a conscientious objector and freed from a prison in Washington State to join her and their two-year-old daughter, Hadiya, in Europe.
“He was betrayed by the same men who said they respected his stand and who now want to make him suffer as an example to others who have the courage of their convictions,” Mrs Webster said. “I’m appalled at the way the Defence Department has behaved after William was honest with them and offered to resign the life he loved rather than put his unit in any awkward position.”
Amnesty International has raised a petition with thousands of names that it hopes will embarrass the Bush Administration into reconsidering this landmark case.
“Mr Webster has been imprisoned merely for exercising his right to oppose a war on conscientious grounds,” Neil Durkin, of Amnesty, said. “We consider him a prisoner of conscience who should be released immediately and unconditionally, with full restoration of his salary, pension and other entitlements.”
Sergeant Webster, 38, was born in Florida, raised a Christian, and always wanted to join the army. He fought with distinction in the Gulf War. He served as a peacekeeper in Bosnia and Kosovo, and supported the US action in Afghanistan even though he had converted to Islam in 1994.
“His conversion was a private matter. He didn’t go around trying to convert his fellow soldiers, or asking for any special treatment,” Mrs Webster, who married him in 1998, said.
“He is no zealot. He is proud to be an American soldier and has never been in trouble in his life. William saw his best friend blown up alongside him in the first Gulf war. He is no coward. This isn’t an excuse to stay away from Iraq.
“In the Balkans, the US Army was anxious to use William to deal with local Muslim leaders to persuade them the US was there to protect Islamic communities.” When he realised that his unit would have to go to Iraq, “he took advice from clerics who instructed him he could not fight fellow Muslims in what they see as an unlawful conflict”, Mrs Webster said.
He applied in September last year to be recognised as a conscientious objector. He withdrew the application after senior officers told him that he would not succeed, and that they would ensure that he would not have to choose between following his President’s orders or his faith.
Instead he applied to be reassigned to non-combatant services.
Mrs Webster said: “One of his senior commanders told him, ‘Don’t resign as you are due to retire early 2005 and you will lose your 20-year pension’. Literally a couple of days before the unit set off his commanding officer said, ‘Pack your bags, you are coming with us to Iraq’.”
Even then he again offered to leave the army. He was refused, though he continued to carry out his duties in Germany when the unit left without him.
The last time that Mrs Webster saw her husband, in early August, armed US military police stood by as he was allowed a brief time holding their daughter before being led in handcuffs back to his cell at Mannheim in Germany.
His wife was not told when he was moved from Mannheim to Kansas and then last month to Tacoma in Washington State. “It’s so far away his family in Florida find it hard to visit, let alone his two teenage sons from his previous marriage who live in Germany,” she said. “On a teacher’s salary I can’t afford to get there regularly with our daughter, so what’s the army’s thinking in doing this to him?” The Pentagon’s own rules state that while an appeal is pending a prisoner should not be transferred.
Sergeant Webster also wants his application as a conscientious objector to be reconsidered.
He was uncomfortable at first about becoming a cause célèbre, but Mrs Webster said: “He feels humble that so many people are supporting him. All he wants is understanding that he is not a coward, or a troublemaker, but a man of principle. People will disagree with his stand, but I hope they appreciate that he is sincere.”
At his court martial in June, his commander had recommended that Sergeant Webster receive the maximum 12-year sentence.
The Pentagon says that since last year, the army has received 96 applications from conscientious objectors, 48 of which have been approved. A spokesman said that its rules define a conscientious objector as someone who is opposed to war in any form, and that Sergeant Webster does not meet this standard.
“Sergeant Webster’s could not be considered because his objection is to only a certain war. Soldiers who join the US Army volunteer and know the obligations of their service and their personal commitment to their fellow soldiers,” he said.
The spokesman said that no other aspect of the case could be discussed as appeal proceedings were pending. Times Online