Activist makes plea for U.S. deserters

Celeste Zappala says her son Sherwood Baker had no idea what he was getting himself into when he joined the Pennsylvania National Guard eight years ago.

A teacher, disc jockey and musician when he enlisted, Baker never thought he'd be called up for overseas duty with U.S. military forces, she said. The National Guard, he assumed, was for natural disasters and the like.
Sherwood Baker
"Recruiters are very persuasive, always promising college support and extra money,'' she said.

But last March, Sgt. Sherwood Baker was called up and sent to Iraq. On April 26, an officer arrived on Zappala's doorstep to say her son had been killed by an explosion in Baghdad.

Now Zappala wants Canada, a country she calls a staunch defender of human rights, to open its doors to U.S. service people who refuse to go to Iraq and abandon their units.

Accompanied by Tom Hayden, the American activist of the 1960s, and Canadian human rights lawyer Jeffry House, she came to the halls of Parliament on Thursday to ask MPs to provide a haven for deserters.

The American people were sold a bill of goods when President George W. Bush sent their military into action in Iraq, the delegation said.

"The intelligence was wrong, dead wrong,'' Zappala told a news conference.

"There were no weapons of mass destruction; there were no al-Qaida ties; there was no threat.

"I am here as a friend who turns to another friend for help.''

Last month, U.S. Army Specialist Jeremy Hinzman lost his bid for refugee status in Canada after abandoning his unit because he believed the invasion of Iraq was criminal.

The Immigration and Refugee Board said Hinzman had not made a convincing argument that he faced persecution in the United States. House, Hinzman's lawyer, has asked the Federal Court of Canada to examine the decision.

A government spokesman said anyone in Hinzman's position can do the same.

"They are free to appeal to the Federal Court if they are not satisfied with their (Immigration and Refugee Board) decision on a point of law,'' said Steve Heckbert, spokesman for Immigration Minister Joe Volpe.

"They can also make applications on humanitarian and compassionate grounds if they so wish. That doesn't mean they'll be accepted.''

Hayden, once a defendant in the notorious trial of the Chicago Seven and later a California state legislator, said today's U.S. soldiers and reservists are in much the same boat as their Vietnam-era counterparts.

While there is no draft, he said teenagers with few alternatives are coerced to volunteer by lavish offers of cash and education.

"We're asking for the same kind of compassionate solidarity and support that Canadians have given again and again in the past,'' said Hayden, once married to fellow activist and actress Jane Fonda.

"The Canadian government can establish a category of refugees, provide work permits and opportunities for asylum and sanctuary for those soldiers who have reconsidered and are now trying to serve their conscience.''

House said Ottawa has taken similar measures for refugees, nannies and East European hockey players by offering work permits with the possibility of permanent resident status after two to three years.

"This has been done time and time again when a humanitarian crisis is at hand, and certainly there is such a crisis now,'' House said.

But Heckbert said such programs are typically intended to meet an ``identified need of the labour market.''

"I don't think these folks would qualify.''

Hinzman, 26, deserted his regiment in January 2004, days before deploying to Iraq. He told his December refugee hearing that any violent acts he committed in Iraq would have amounted to atrocities because it's an illegal war.

As a deserter, Hinzman faces court martial and a potential five-year jail term in the United States.

A handful of other American soldiers are also believed to be trying to gain refugee status in Canada and as many as 100 may be in the country.

© Canadian Press 2005
Stephen Thorne Canadian Press

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