U.S. Army Deserter Denied Asylum In Canada

Says Witnessed Atrocities in Iraq
By Colin Perkel, THE CANADIAN PRESS April 1, 2008

TORONTO An American army deserter who says he witnessed U.S. military atrocities against civilians in Iraq hopes to persuade the courts Wednesday that Canada was wrong to deny him refugee status on the basis he didn't have to commit war crimes.

But Joshua Key, 29, a father of four, faces an uphill struggle before Federal Court in light of similar decisions that have gone against dozens of other American war dodgers who have claimed asylum in this country.

In denying his refugee claim, the Immigration and Refugee Board essentially decided in November 2006 that while Key may have been ordered to violate the Geneva Conventions which govern armed conflict, he wasn't implicated in war crimes.

Lawyer Jeffry House called it "patently preposterous" that the board had no problem with the idea that Key could be jailed in the U.S. for refusing to violate the international treaty.

"It cannot be correct that you have to be refusing to commit a war crime in order to potentially claim refugee status but it's insufficient if you're being required to violate the Geneva Conventions," House said in an interview Tuesday.

Key, who served with 43rd Combat Engineer Company, was the first U.S. deserter with actual fighting experience in Iraq to apply for refugee status in Canada.

Among other things, the Oklahoma native told the board how a "trigger-happy" U.S. army squad leader shot the foot off an unarmed Iraqi man and soldiers kicked a severed head around like a soccer ball.

"My own moral judgment was disintegrating under the pressure of being a soldier, feeling vulnerable, and having no clear enemy to kill in Iraq," he wrote in a book called "The Deserter's Tale."

"Given the absence of any clearly understood enemy, we picked our fights with civilians who were powerless to resist. We knew that we would not have to account for our actions." On leave after eight months in Iraq, he deserted in November 2003.

He and his family hid out in Philadelphia before crossing into Canada at Niagara Falls, N.Y., in March 2005 and later moved out west.

Like Key, a few hundred other American deserters have found their way to Canada, while as many as 70 have gone the refugee-status route unsuccessfully.

Ultimately, whether they can stay might have to be decided politically.

The House of Commons immigration committee in December called for a halt to any deportation proceedings and to let deserters apply for permanent resident status. The Commons will likely debate and vote on the issue in the summer.

"Canada has to decide what we're going to do with these people," House said. "It should be a legal question, but if the courts are going to say no it isn't, then the other side is it has got to be a political question."

In the case of Jeremy Hinzman which the Supreme Court of Canada refused to hear the Federal Court of Appeal held that he wouldn't face any serious punishment if returned to the United States.

"We don't believe that's true. We know that some people are in jail for six or eight months," House said. "You shouldn't be sent to jail because you don't want to violate the Geneva Conventions."

House also plans to argue, again, that the board was wrong to exclude evidence on the legality of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.

"What the courts are doing is ducking the legal question that I'm saying has to be answered," House said.