Murder charge places military under scrutiny

Questions persist about the second degree murder charge against a Canadian military officer

On January 2nd, 2009, we issued this press release, calling on Defence Minister Peter MacKay to explain the facts of the case, when he and the government were informed, and what steps the government is taking to ensure a proper and transparent investigation. We provided commentary and analysis to the Toronto Star (below), The Canadian Press, and Global TV National News. We will be following this case closely as it proceeds. – Steve 

Video: GlobalTV National News January 2, 2009

Murder charge places military under scrutiny – SpecialSections

Delay in charge against Canadian soldier in death of unarmed Afghan raises parallels to dark past

January 03, 2009
Emily Mathieu

The Canadian military is under scrutiny today after taking more than two months to charge one of its own with the murder of an unarmed Afghan male, stirring memories of the darkest days in the force’s history.

“The incident is very serious, the charges are very serious and of course Canadians can’t help but be reminded of Somalia and the incident that took place during that ill-fated mission,” said Steven Staples, a defence and foreign policy expert.

Yesterday, Capt. Robert Semrau was charged with shooting “with intent to kill” an unarmed male described as a “presumed insurgent” in Helmand province on Oct. 19, the Department of National Defence said in a news release.

The Pembroke, Ont., native is accused of one count of second-degree murder under the National Defence Act.

Semrau was acting as a mentor to Afghan soldiers with the Operational Mentor and Liaison Team, the military unit that guides the fledgling Afghan National Army.

“The biggest concern is the delay,” lawyer Paul Champ, a human rights specialist, told The Canadian Press. “The allegations are that a Canadian officer – a mentor, at that – shot an unarmed man over two months ago. And we don’t have any information about why it took so long for that allegation to come forward or be investigated.”

In 1993, information was held back by military officials following the torture and death of a Somali teen at the hands of a group of Canadian soldiers on a peacekeeping mission.

The death and ensuing cover-up shook the nation’s faith in the military and changes were enacted to ensure it didn’t happen again, including the creation of the military’s national investigation service. The subsequent inquiry eventually led to the disbanding of the Canadian Airborne Regiment.

At the time of the October shooting, Afghan soldiers, members of the Operational Mentor and Liaison Team and British troops had been defending the Helmand capital of Lashkar Gah from insurgent attack. During the three-day defence, Afghan and NATO officials claimed at least 100 Taliban died in the fighting, which involved air strikes in addition to ground combat.

In a video shot by a soldier the day before the alleged shooting took place, Semrau describes the Afghan soldiers as “really good guys.” In the tape, he said the soldiers lacked “the basic soldiering skills” Canadian Forces take for granted, such as how to conduct certain types of searches and cordon off areas, but it was his role to mentor them through it.

When asked where he was heading, Semrau said it was unclear what was to take place, but they were going to Lashkar Gah to join their Afghan army counterparts. “I imagine we’ll do some aggressive patrolling, some defensive work and try to rear up the Taliban to kill and capture them.”

On Thursday, an Afghan army general, who was on hand for the battle of Lashkar Gah, told The Canadian Press he had heard none of the allegations of “inappropriate conduct” surrounding the shooting. Gen. Sher Muhammad Zazai said the sheer number of Taliban fighters killed by the Afghan army during the battle makes it impossible to know how they all died.

When reached by telephone yesterday, members of the Semrau family were tight-lipped. “We cannot give any comment at this time other than we love him,” said one woman in Camrose, Alta. In Vancouver, B.C., another said, “We don’t want to make a comment at this time,” adding “We love him very much, we want to ensure fair process.”

Staples said the public will be watching this case closely and Defence Minister Peter MacKay must publicly address the issue. A defence department spokesperson said yesterday there were no plans for MacKay to make a statement.

Staples, president of the Rideau Institute, a defence and foreign policy think tank, said in light of the Somalia incident, “now is the time for Minister MacKay to provide political leadership to reassure Canadians that all of the facts are going to be put on the table and that this incident will be investigated fully.

“At this point the clock is ticking.”

Staples questioned the timeline released Wednesday in which Col. Jamie Cade, acting commander of Task Force Afghanistan, said he learned of the death on Dec. 27 – just after MacKay left Kandahar following a Christmas visit.

Michel Drapeau, a retired Canadian colonel who practises law in Ottawa asked, “Is there anything else that we don’t know about, if there is such an inefficient passage of information?”

If something as significant as the shooting did not come to the knowledge of the authorities for two months it signals a disconcerting breakdown in communication, said Drapeau.

While there was a delay between the incident and the investigation, the charge was laid with unprecedented speed, he said. He said the short period of time between when the investigation was announced and when the charges were laid made him question whether the military could have had information earlier then has been admitted.

“There is something that just doesn’t jive,” he said.

Retired military officers bristled at comparisons and stressed Semrau is innocent until proven guilty.

Retired Col. Chris Corrigan of the Royal Canadian Military Institute told The Canadian Press justice must be allowed to run its course as the facts of the case come to light.

“That Canadian soldier has a right, as well, to being protected by our legal system.”

Corrigan says he can see why it took two months for the allegations to surface. “There have been a lot of inquiries, a lot of investigations going on during this time frame that involved our own people dying … They were dealing with other life and death issues.”

– With files from The Canadian Press

Tags: Afghanistan, Rideau Institute, Steven Staples