Trial begins for Canadian soldier accused of murder in battlefield killing

Monday, January 25, 2010

A court martial got underway today accusing a Canadian soldier of murder for shooting a member of the Taliban on an Afghan battlefield. Captain Robert Semrau's case is believed to be a military and legal first.

Semrau, 38, is facing four charges for the 2008 death. He is accused of second-degree murder, attempted murder, behaving in a disgraceful manner, and negligently performing a military duty. It is alleged that he shot the man twice despite him being an unarmed and "seriously wounded" prisoner.

Court documents set a scene in which 36-year-old Semrau was in charge of a small group of soldiers caught in an ambush on October 19 last year. The Canadians were mentoring some new Afghan recruits, who were under British command. A United States Apache assault helicopter provided assistance to the group, who were in Lashkar Gah, Helmand, strafing the area.

After beating back their attackers the soldiers discovered a fighter with injuries deemed to be so severe that medical aid would be ineffective, along with a dead man. He was disarmed, his assault rifle having been captured. Shortly afterwards, with only Semrau near the man, two gunshots were heard. At least one eyewitness claims to have watched Semrau shooting the militant with his field rifle. Troops then moved on and the man's body was never recovered.

Captain Semrau was not investigated for two months, when his superiors heard of the alleged killing. He was ultimately arrested by the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service a month later and charged. He is now set to go on trial before Colonel Mario Duti, a military judge, and a five-member panel.

The Canadian Press contacted Michel Drapeau, a retired lawyer and colonel. He says he believes it to be the first time Canada has launched a court martial for the death of a prisoner on the battlefield. "It's unprecedented in many, many respects. I can't remember any such incidents in the past 50 years and in the Second World War, I don't believe there was such a court martial."

There are a few recorded instances of alleged extra-judicial killing by Canadian soldiers, but no court martials for murder. Two Canadian soldiers faced a murder charge for the death of a teenager in Somalia in 1993 but the case was dropped; some evidence emerged during the inquiry that suggested another man may also have been killed illegally. More anecdotally, Canadians have been accused of similar murders in Korea and of shooting German prisoners for revenge during the second world war.