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Summary of “‘An act of so-called mercy’: Semrau case hinges on ‘soldier’s pact’”
Kathryn Blaze Carlson, National Post, with files from Canwest News Service, 7 July 2010


Kathryn Carlson’s summary of events relating to the Semrau trial illustrated a subtle shift in focus.

On the morning of Oct. 19, 2008, sometime after Taliban insurgents opened fire on his forces in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, Canadian Forces Captain Robert Semrau allegedly stumbled upon a bloodied enemy fighter, took pity on the dying man and then fired two fatal rounds. The churchgoing serviceman was later charged with second-degree murder, precipitating a saga that has unfolded like a Hollywood movie before a captive Canadian audience.

The court-martial case of Capt. Semrau, a 36-year-old father of two with what one judge described as an “exemplary” record, entered its final chapter yesterday, as the defence and prosecution presented their final arguments for and against the man who catapulted into the headlines the “soldier’s pact” – an unwritten code that if one soldier is wounded and on the verge of death, another should hasten the inevitable.

While the prosecution was willing to acknowledge that “so-called mercy” may have been a motivation behind Capt. Semrau’s action, he had nevertheless “shot the insurgent twice with his Canadian Forces rifle, that his victim was still alive when he did so, and that the shots were fatal.” The defence maintained that the case had not been proven, the body of the insurgent had never been found, so the cause of death was difficult to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Apparently, mercy killing on the battlefield is “more common than civilians might care to think.” That was the view of John Thompson, a warfare expert and president of the Toronto-based Mackenzie Institute. Nevertheless, Canadian civilians were certainly thinking now, and as Carlson noted, it had resulted in the formation of two distinct interpretations of events.

In one camp, there are those who question how a man who left his family to fight for his country could end up facing 10 years in jail for allegedly putting a dying enemy out of his misery. (The court-martial had heard that the Taliban insurgent was “98% he was gone,” and that the man’s legs were cut off, his belly was “torn out,” and he was not moving.)

Another camp of onlookers argues that condoning Capt. Semrau’s alleged act of mercy would send this country down a slippery slope, where Canada’s soldiers are somehow exempt from the Canadian Criminal Code and the Geneva Conventions, which say that “all wounded and sick shall be collected and cared for.”

The focus of the first camp was on the character of Capt. Semrau and the motivation behind his act. More than 8,000 had joined the Support the Freedom of Capt. Robert Semrau Facebook Group. Carlson mentioned a group member, Chris Runquist, one of Semrau’s best friends, who met the serviceman “through the youth ministry at the Lakeview Church in Saskatchewan in 1992.” According to Runquist, “He [Semrau] is one of the most stand-up guys I have ever met, he could befriend anyone.” Carlson added,

Capt. Semrau has been described as a family man with a laudatory military record, having been posted to CFB Petawawa after a three-year stint in the British army, which took him around the world, including to Afghanistan for the first time in 2002.

He is younger brother to Bill, and son to Don and Jean. And he is father to two-year-old Camea and a newborn girl named Chloe – who was born to his wife, Amelie Lapierre, during a two-day break from the proceedings in the spring.

In spite of the public sympathy for Capt. Semrau, Carlson maintained balance in her article. Col. Michel Drapeau, a lecturer on military law at the University of Ottawa, said he would be “surprised” if a conviction on the charge of murder was possible “beyond a reasonable doubt,” but maintained that “the Canadian Forces’ decision to move forward with Capt. Semrau’s case was the right one, especially in the wake of the 1993 Somalia scandal where Canadian authorities tried to cover up the torture and killing of a teenaged boy.” From his perspective, it was necessary for Semrau “to face the law.”

Scott Taylor, publisher of the military magazine Esprit de Corps, “said that “if the court-martial finds him innocent because the Taliban insurgent was dying anyway, a dangerous new precedent would be set.” He added, “Either we’re going to abide by the Geneva Convention, or we’re going to throw it out the window and descend into the madness.”

Considering the “real-life consequences for Capt. Semrau,” Taylor suggested a “middle ground.”

There’s a middle ground where they could still maintain a moral authority and say, “Look, you broke the rule, you’re guilty of second-degree murder, but because of your intentions and because it was done out of the sake of humanity, we’ll give you some sort of suspended sentence.”

Regardless of the outcome, Carlson concluded that Semrau “would almost certainly be discharged and unable to work in any civil service or security position again, his stellar service record forever tainted by the alleged events of that October morning.

Discussion: What new twists in this difficult case emerged in Carlson’s article? What new arguments, pro and con, were put forward? What kind of future was Semrau likely to have after the court-martial was over?