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Summary of “Trial begins for Canadian soldier in killing of unarmed Taliban
Michel Comte, AFP, 24 March 2010


According to Michel Comte, the trial of Captain Robert Semrau before a military judge and a five member panel at Gatineau, Quebec, was the first prosecution of its kind in Canada. Capt. Semrau was charged with murder for “shooting, with intent to kill, an unarmed male person” in Afghanistan. He was also charged with “behaving disgracefully” and “neglecting his military duty.” He pleaded “not guilty” to all the charges.

Both prosecution and defence had agreed to the essential facts as laid out in military documents. As Comte reported:

Semrau’s troops were on patrol in Helmand province when they were ambushed by Taliban fighters. During that period Canadian soldiers were facing an increasingly tough insurgency as they defended key positions in the region. Semrau was mentoring Afghan soldiers as part of a NATO program. Following several clashes, British and Afghan troops along with their Canadian mentors came across two “presumed” Taliban fighters: one dead, the other too severely wounded for treatment on site. According to prosecutors, the wounded man was “insulted, spat upon, and kicked” by Afghan soldiers in Semrau’s company. His rifle, ammo and vest were taken and the patrol moved off, deciding to leave his fate “in Allah’s hands.” The wounded man was “still alive, moving slightly and moaning,” prosecutor Captain Thomas Fitzgerald told the court.

Semrau, a Canadian private under his command, and an Afghan interpreter code-named Max soon returned to photograph the two insurgents, after deciding they could be “high value targets.” They found the wounded man “still breathing, his chest rising slightly.” “He had moved, changed position,” said Fitzgerald. The private snapped two pictures of the wounded man as Semrau stood guard.

Semrau then told Max and the private to “head back” as they “should not have to see this,” said the prosecutor. The pair walked a short distance “when the y heard two distinct shots.” The private “whirled around thinking he’d been caught in another ambush,” his gun ready. He saw the victim was “no longer moving.” Simrau is alleged to have told the private under his command “that he couldn’t live with himself if he had left a wounded human being and nobody should be made to suffer like that.” Later that day, Semrau was overheard saying that he fired the shots that killed the insurgent and that “anyone would do the same for any other human being in that situation. He is still a human being and should not suffer like that.”

Comte pointed out that mercy killing is not acknowledged in either Canadian or international law. He also noted that “Canadian soldiers had killed prisoners on the battlefield in Korea and after D-Day in retaliation for the murder of Canadians by the German SS, but charges were never laid in those cases.” The Afghan killing was not reported until an Afghan soldier and the private, who had been with Semrau, disclosed it.

The prosecutor Captain Thomas Fitzgerald described the shooting as “shockingly appalling.” He summarised the evident, including a “nine-minute video shot by an Afghan soldier” of the victim, and photos of him “taken seconds before his death.” Apparently, two 5.56 mm shell casings had been found at the scene of the killing “allegedly shot into the insurgent’s chest at close range,” although the victim’s body was never recovered.

Semrau, who had an unblemished career prior to the charges, had served with the British Armed forces for several years before joining the Canadian army in 2005. If convicted, he could serve a “possible life sentence, or 25 years in a military prison.”

Discussion: Comte’s reference to alleged war crimes by Canadians in Korea and Normandy raises the possibility that the same may have occurred in Afghanistan. The two month delay in reporting the incident became possible evidence of an attempted cover-up. Concerning Comte’s allegation of war crimes by Canadians after D-Day in Normandy, that claim has been made elsewhere. To get some perspective on the claim, see Allied War Crimes During World War II

Mercy killing may have motivated Capt. Semrau to do what he did. Why is mercy killing a contentious argument? What are the pros and cons? How would it be viewed in a military court martial?