press release, 05/13/2005Abdullah Webster
Before my wife’s return to the UK I wanted to take this opportunity to thank every one at Amnesty International for their prayers and support. Your support really helped me during my time at Mannheim and Fort Lewis. I received many letters from all around the world, even though over 30 were returned or denied. It was also brought to my attention that several letters were also returned without informing me. To those whose letters were returned without my knowledge, I offer my thanks and I am touched for you taking the time to encourage me throughout the past 11 months.
Since being out, I have noticed that there are various accounts stating why I’d refused to go to Iraq. I had actually informed my command that we are taught to train soldiers to be Mentally, Physically, and Spiritually prepared for war. As time wore on it transpired that the reason for this war was false – there had not been any weapons of mass destruction. Given the legality of the war it was considered to be unjust and I was not mentally nor spiritually prepared to partake in an unjust war. My faith forbids me from participating in an unjust war which will subsequently result in the taking of innocent life, be they non Muslim or Muslim. I truly believe that I would have been held accountable before Allah (God) if I had gone, knowing the war to be unjust and I would not have been able to function fully to the same capacity as I have done the past 19 years of my career as a soldier. It was therefore not an easy decision, nor one taken lightly to refuse to go to Iraq.
During my time in Fort Lewis and Mannheim I met several soldiers who served in Iraq. I can recall a couple of stories that really cemented the fact that I had made the right decision. One soldier informed me that he was on a convoy and a group of local people was blocking their path. He stopped his vehicle but his commander told him to carry on. The group slowly broke up with the exception of a child blocking their way. The soldier recalled how at night he can still see when his vehicle hit the little child and how the other vehicles behind him kept running over the child’s body. He had informed me that if he could do it all over again he wouldn’t have gone to Iraq. Another story was that a soldier regretted the fact that he didn’t intervene nor took any action when his fellow squad member was raping the wife and daughter of the husband who refused to give them any information during their searches. How could I look my God and my family in the face had I gone and was present at incidents such as these?
My experience in confinement had its ups and downs. The lowest point during my time there was when I was not allowed to contact my family, but generally God enabled me to learn from my experience and draw strength from it. I was also able to try to help others whilst there. The good days were when I met several people who were willing to turn their lives around. A lot of the ones there thought I was there unjustly because I was there because of my faith. Several of the guys looked at how I dealt with my experience and they thought that given the way that I had been treated, and the good way I was coping with it, it inspired them to cope better with their situation. Several of the soldiers - both inmates and guards - needed advice or a listening ear and would come to me. Even up to the day of my leaving they had asked what they are going to do now that I was going. I had said that they needed to rely on each other for their support.
I was surprised to also find out that I had been an inspiration to my wife whilst inside. I had been thinking that she was a source of strength in keeping the family together and working so hard with organizations such as Amnesty International, letting people know what had happened to me, as well as taking care of our two year old daughter. Instead she had told me that because I referred to each day as being one day less inside, she began to view our circumstances in the same way. It truly was a blessing to be reunited with them again and to see how much my baby had grown.
If there was one thing I hope to come out of my experience it is the fact that the army needs to review its policy on how it treats conscientious objectors. The army regulations pertaining to conscientious objectors do not take into account of a war being illegal or unjust preventing a soldier from performing his duties in that particular war. It is too cut-and-dry. Not all soldiers object to all wars – as in this case the real reason for going to war seem somewhat obscure. Not all soldiers belong to just one faith – there are many soldiers now from various religious backgrounds and the current conscientious objector regulations/guidelines do not take this into account. We do realize and can ascertain when a war is wrong and we may come across a situation such as this one where the United Nations have recognized a war as illegal to the point that it clashes with our religious belief. We should be given the option to resign if no other options are available. As a result of the current situation soldiers have no other option but to go AWOL because they realize that the punishment for going AWOL is less than going through their chain of command and objecting to a war which is unjust. This should not be the case and we should try to support those soldiers genuine in their conscientious beliefs.
We all still wish to protect our families and our country and it is my hope that after my experience, soldiers in a similar situation to myself will receive the support they need in order to continue to carry out their duties.
Abdullah W B Webster.
I want to thank all the people and all the organizations who have supported my family and me throughout this most difficult time in our lives. I am now free from prison, but it was because of all of you that I remained a free man during my incarceration. I was not able to read all the mail that was sent, in part because prison rules did not allow it, and in part because I received thousands upon thousands of letters from all over the world. In time I will read all of them, and I will answer as many as I can. From the bottom of my heart, and on behalf of my family, my attorneys, and myself, thank you all.
USA: Freedom to dissent denied
press release, 12/03/2004According to the administration of the United States, "moral clarity" was central to the reasons for going to war with Iraq. Saddam Hussein's regime was bad and had to be changed - it was the right thing to do. Tony Blair echoed this view when he said that there was a strong moral case for Britain going to war with Iraq.
Unfortunately for some, the right to stand up for your moral beliefs and act upon them only extended in one direction. While it showed "moral clarity" to take part in the war; two US soldiers learnt that dissenting was a punishable offence. Dissenting from the official view of the morality or otherwise of this war led to imprisonment for Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejía Castillo and Sergeant Abdullah William Webster.
On 21 May 2004, a US military court sentenced Staff Sergeant Castillo of the Florida National Guard to the maximum penalty of one year's imprisonment for desertion. He had refused to return to his unit in Iraq, citing moral reasons, the legality of the war and the conduct of US troops towards Iraqi civilians and prisoners.
The sentence was imposed despite a pending decision by the army on his application for conscientious objector status. During the trial, his lawyers were not permitted to present arguments relating to his conscientious objection, including describing the abuse he witnessed. He is currently detained in a military prison at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. The sentence is under appeal, but the appeal process is expected to be lengthy.
Camilo Mejía was deployed to Iraq in April 2003. He began developing doubts about the morality and legality of the war. He returned home for two weeks leave in October 2003 and subsequently failed to return to duty in Iraq. He filed for discharge as a conscientious objector on 16 March 2004, stating that he believed the war and occupation of Iraq to be "illegal and immoral".
In his conscientious objector application, Camilo Mejía described the conditions of detention and treatment of Iraqi prisoners, including instances where soldiers were directed to "break the detainees' resolve", and who took actions that included banging on metal walls with sledgehammers to enforce sleep deprivation, and loading pistols near the ears of prisoners. He also described witnessing the killing of civilians, including children.
Camilo Mejía has described the evolution of his beliefs, what he witnessed and did in Iraq, all of which compelled him to take a stand on the basis of conscience. His objections to such abuse were made before the publication of photographs of US agents physically and mentally torturing and abusing Iraqi detainees in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, but his trial came at a time of heightened media attention on this issue.
A member of his defence team, former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, spoke of the "incredible irony that we're prosecuting soldiers in Iraq for violations of international law and we're prosecuting a soldier here because he refused to do the same things".
Following the recent US election, President Bush assured people of different belief that he would "be your president regardless of your faith, and I don't expect you to agree with me necessarily on religion." To be consistent, the President must take action in the case of Muslim soldier, Abdullah Webster, imprisoned for following his own religious beliefs.
Sergeant Webster submitted a conscientious objector application in September 2003 to secure his release from military obligations in Iraq on the basis that his religion prohibited him from participating in any aggressive war against, or in any oppression or injustice to, Muslims or non-Muslims. He is a US citizen who has served in the US army since 1985. He had been based in Bamberg in Germany since 2001, from whence he was requested to deploy to Iraq between March and April 2003.
He later withdrew this application after receiving advice that it would not be successful. Instead, he submitted an application to be reassigned to non-combatant services. Despite this, he was ordered to deploy to Iraq in February 2004. Following his refusal on religious grounds, he was charged with failing to obey commands from his superior and missing his Brigade's movements.
A further application for conscientious objector status was refused on the grounds that his objection was not to war in general but to the Iraq war in particular. According to US Army Regulations, requests for qualification as a conscientious objector will not be favourably considered when such requests are based on objection to a certain war.
Abdullah Webster was sentenced to 14 months' imprisonment, a bad conduct discharge, suspension of his salary and loss of pension and other benefits. He had been due to retire from service in 2005. He is currently held at the US base in Mannheim, Germany.
If "moral clarity" is anything other than a speech-writer's stock phrase, it must be extended beyond simply those in power. If a decision to go to war based on your beliefs of what is right or wrong is moral, the decision not to fight based on different beliefs must also be acceptable. Amnesty International (AI) considers a conscientious objector to be any person who, for reasons of conscience or profound conviction, refuses to perform service in the armed forces or any other direct or indirect participation in wars or armed conflicts.
Furthermore, AI considers a person to be a prisoner of conscience when they are detained or imprisoned solely because they have been denied or refused their right to register an objection or to perform a genuinely civilian alternative service. They would also be prisoners of conscience if they are imprisoned for leaving the armed forces without authorization for reasons of conscience, if they have taken reasonable steps to secure release from military obligations.
Camilo Mejía Castillo and Abdullah William Webster are conscientious objectors, whether or not the US military accepts their status, and both are recognised as prisoners of conscience by AI. Their continued detention makes the words of President Bush and his allies ring hollow and they should be immediately and unconditionally released.