Sue Webster: When good guys are jailed for stepping out of line

For daring to oppose a war that Kofi Annan declared illegal, he carries the stain of convicted 'felon'
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The Independent Online

What happens if you're a soldier and you oppose a controversial war? In Britain, conscientious objection is an option. The reservist George Solomou has emerged as a self-professed "beacon" for those within the Army who opposed the war in Iraq. Similarly Rose Gentle, the Scottish mother of a soldier killed in Iraq last year, has called on British troops to become conscientious objectors and refuse to serve in Iraq.

What happens if you're a soldier and you oppose a controversial war? In Britain, conscientious objection is an option. The reservist George Solomou has emerged as a self-professed "beacon" for those within the Army who opposed the war in Iraq. Similarly Rose Gentle, the Scottish mother of a soldier killed in Iraq last year, has called on British troops to become conscientious objectors and refuse to serve in Iraq.

As with the McCartneys in Belfast or the Deepcut families, personal stands and families speaking out can be a potent political force. I am British but my American husband is a professional soldier in the US army, whose career is in tatters because he took a stand against war in Iraq. For daring to oppose a war that Kofi Annan and others have declared illegal, he has been court martialled, stripped of his sergeant's rank, imprisoned for 14 months and now stands to lose his pension and carry the stain of convicted "felon".

What does it say about the American military machine that it needs to lock up even the "good guys" if they dare to step out of line?

Up until last year my husband Abdullah William Webster had had a distinguished military career stretching back to 1985. Abdullah fought in the first Gulf War and saw a close friend killed. In the 1990s he went on to perform difficult peacekeeping duties in Bosnia and Kosovo. He was raised a Christian and converted to Islam in the mid-1990s. His faith has always been important to him but so has the army. He is not a pacifist and believes that the military performs a valuable and noble duty. He has always taken great pride in his professionalism.

But Iraq was a different story. My husband consulted his conscience, his family and Muslim clerics. He had decided that he couldn't be part of an illegal war. In September 2003 he applied for recognition as a conscientious objector. His unit then was based in Germany, and likely to be mobilised. Abdullah was told to withdraw his application: senior officers said it would not succeed and, in any case, no stark choice between country and conscience would be forced on him.

That was untrue. Later, with his unit due to deploy to Iraq, Abdullah was suddenly ordered to ready himself. Not for the first time he attempted to reach a solution by asking to be reassigned to non-combat duties. This was rejected and instead the army set out to make an example of my husband with a court martial. Despite Abdullah's service record the army sought a long prison sentence.

Abdullah's court martial turned my world upside down. An abiding memory I have is of him being led off back to his cell in Mannheim as I watched in tears, holding our 22-month-old daughter in my arms. I have now not seen Abdullah for over six months. After detention in Germany he was transferred to Fort Lewis, in Washington State. For the first two months at Fort Lewis he was not even able to contact me.

I'm a teacher and have had to return to full-time work back in Britain, meaning I'm away from my infant daughter for nearly 50 hours a week. Our daughter has become more clingy, dependent and less happy. And what am I to tell her? Your father's in prison, but he's a good man?

In the midst of this ordeal there has been new strength in solidarity. Amnesty International has adopted Abdullah as a prisoner of conscience and has called for his release and restoration of his rank and privileges. Why has the army picked on my husband? The Pentagon said at the end of last year that it had received around 100 conscientious objection applications and had approved half of them. But it appears to be singling out those who specify they object to the Iraq war on particular grounds, especially issues of legality. Just like Tony Blair who still faces probing questions over the legal advice he received over war in Iraq, it seems the US authorities cannot bear to have this matter publicly questioned.

My husband's is a reluctant campaign forced on him by a vindictive military system apparently unable to brook principled opposition to a controversial war.In Britain Abdullah would at least be accorded the respect that people have shown to George Solomou and Rose Gentle. Far from being a deserter or a coward, Abdullah is a brave man with principles.

Today, on the second anniversary of the invasion of Iraq we should remember the thousands of Iraqi victims. But we should also keep in our thoughts those soldiers sent to fight a war they never believed in. We in Britain should also know that opposing a controversial war apparently makes you a criminal in America. Is this the kind of ally we really want in the "war on terror"?

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