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Summary of “Capt. Robert Semrau dismissed from the Forces
Michael Friscolanti,, 5 October 2010


In October Capt. Robert Semrau was demoted in rank to Second Lieutenant and dismissed from the Canadian Armed Forces. However, he was spared a prison term after being found guilty of disgraceful conduct for having shot an allegedly mortally wounded insurgent on a battlefield in Afghanistan.

In spite of widespread support for Capt. Semrau among the Canadian public, the judge, Lt.-Col. Jean-Guy Perron, was not sympathetic. Among other things, he said:

You failed in your role as a leader. How can we expect our soldiers to follow the rules of war if their officers do not? ... Shooting a wounded, unarmed insurgent is so fundamentally contrary to our values, doctrine and training that it is shockingly unacceptable behaviour ... You made a decision that will cast a shadow on you for the rest of your life ... Your actions may have been motivated by an honest belief you were doing the right thing ... Nonetheless, you have committed a serious breach of discipline ... Decisions based on personal values cannot prevail over lawful commands.

Perron at one point also criticised Semrau “for putting his subordinates in the difficult predicament of either tattling on their commander or keeping quiet, which is itself a punishable offence.”

Your actions did have a negative impact on your team ... Capt. Semrau, I do not know if you have taken any time to reflect on this question in the last year. If not, do so.

There seemed to be no mitigating circumstances to soften the judge’s remarks. The case was clear.

Canadian soldiers are bound by the Geneva Conventions and the military’s own code of conduct to offer First Aid to all casualties, friend or foe. But the senior Afghan officer on the scene decided that the man was too wounded to save, telling the others: “If Allah wants him, he will die. If not, he will live.” In his capacity as a mentor, Semrau had no authority to overrule the ANA commander.

But rather than leave the man to suffer his fate, Semrau made a difficult choice: he raised his C-8 rifle, aimed at the insurgent’s chest, and pulled the trigger. According to numerous witnesses, he later confessed that it was a “mercy kill.”

Semrau had not spoken publicly about his case and did not do so after the verdict was handed down. However, one of his lawyers reported that he was very disappointed with the verdict, as he “would love to be serving the Canadian Forces and serving his country.”

The verdict took a middle position. Captain Semrau could have been imprisoned and given a disgraceful dismissal as the prosecution wanted, or a “demotion and a stern letter of reprimand” as the defence wanted. Lt.-Col Bruce MacGregor, director of military justice policy in the office of the Judge-Advocate General, said the military was satisfied, because, “The military judge sent a message that discipline is the heart of leadership within the Canadian Forces. If we act outside of the rule of law as Canadian Forces members, we will have to take responsibility for it.”

Discussion: The decision in Captain Robert Semrau’s court martial could have been appealed by either side within 30 days. No such appeal occurred, but the case is still simmering within the military as well as the Canadian public. Were the remarks of Judge Perron fair and just? Will the verdict send a clear message to Canadian soldiers on the battlefields of Afghanistan concerning the rules of war? Will it make it easier for soldiers to think clearly and act professionally in the high stress environment of the battlefield? On the basis of evidence from the blogosphere, do you think the issues raised by the Semrau court martial are going away any time soon?