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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 July, 2004, 13:47 GMT 14:47 UK
US deserter's Canadian campaign
By Jeff Gray
In Toronto

"I'm coming for you," reads one threatening e-mail, laced with racism and obscenities. "Desserters [sic] should get shot in the back especially at war time," reads another.

Jeremy Hinzman (Photograph: Mark Laking)
Hinzman will make his case on Wednesday (Photo: Mark Laking)

Vicious messages, mostly from Americans, have flooded the inbox of 25-year-old Jeremy Hinzman, an American soldier who deserted to seek refugee status in Canada after refusing to participate in the war in Iraq, which he has called a "criminal enterprise".

Mr Hinzman, one of at least two US Army deserters to have fled north, now lives in a Toronto apartment with his wife and two-year-old son, awaiting a refugee hearing on Wednesday, when he will plead with Canadian authorities to allow him to stay.

The former paratrooper said he feels the e-mail vitriol, sent to an address posted on a web site set up by Canadian supporters, can only bolster his case to stay north of the border.

"As far as I'm concerned that solidifies our refugee claim," he told BBC News Online, adding that the United States "is a more freewheeling society, with all kinds of access to weapons".

But many experts believe that Mr Hinzman and his fellow deserter, 18-year-old Brandon Hughey, have little hope of being granted refugee status here, despite Canada's reputation as a generous nation for asylum seekers.

Looking for a home

Americans in trouble have been running to Canada for centuries.

First, in the wake of the American Revolution, thousands living in the new United States who wanted to stay loyal to the British Crown were forced to flee and start new lives to the north.

After the British empire abolished slavery in 1833, British Canada was the destination for the celebrated Underground Railroad that spirited escaped American slaves to freedom.

And in the 1960s, as many as 60,000 young American men dodged the draft by crossing the 49th parallel, hoping to avoid killing or getting killed in the jungles of Vietnam.

Things have changed since then, when Canadian university campuses and the coffee shops of Toronto's Yorkville hippie enclave were crawling with young Americans who had burned their draft cards.

Most of those draft dodgers simply applied for landed immigrant status once in Canada, which opposed its southern neighbour's military adventures in Vietnam.

But immigration rules have been tightened since the Vietnam era, making would-be migrants apply from their home countries. This has pushed Mr Hinzman and Mr Hughey into Canada's refugee system.

Canada is diverse, and half of the people would probably like to send us back on the next bus if they could
Jeremy Hinzman

In the past, Canada has refused to return asylum seekers who would face the death penalty back to the United States. Technically, the death penalty remains on the books for deserters, although the last such execution took place during World War II.

Observers say the two soldiers would only face five-year prison sentences if sent home.

Master Sergeant Pam Smith, a spokeswoman for Mr Hinzman's 82nd Airborne Division stationed at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, said the soldier's name had been placed in database for law enforcement and border guards in case they come across him.

But the Army does not actively seek out deserters, she said.

Sgt Smith said if Mr Hinzman was caught or turned himself in, it would be up to his unit to decide whether he should be disciplined, discharged or court-martialled.

In late May, a court martial sentenced another US soldier, Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia, to a year in prison for deserting his unit in Iraq.

US officials said the sentence would send other would-be deserters a stern message. Sgt Mejia had called the Iraq war an "oil-driven" conflict.

Mixed feelings

Left-wing activists and writers in Canada have welcomed the two deserters and urged the government to accept their refugee claims.

Mr Hinzman, who decided he opposed the Iraq war while serving in Afghanistan, has spoken to peace groups and even addressed a large anti-war rally in Toronto in March.

Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia
Mejia received a one year jail term for desertion

But some, including the editorial page of the conservative National Post newspaper, have argued that the pair should have known what they were getting into when they signed up for the US Army, and should be sent home to face justice.

Mr Hinzman says he has no illusions about the country where he has asked for refuge: "Canada is diverse, and half of the people would probably like to send us back on the next bus if they could."

Canadian officials have said little about the two soldiers, leaving their cases to the arm's-length refugee process.

But south of the border, right-wing commentators such as Bill O'Reilly of the Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox News TV network have seized on the case, even calling for a boycott of Canadian goods if the pair are not extradited quickly.

Their choice?

Besides the numbers, the main difference between those who fled the United States in the Vietnam era and these two soldiers is, of course, the draft.

The US Army is now a volunteer force, although critics point out that many soldiers come from poor rural backgrounds and see the service as the only way to get a job or a college education.

The lawyer acting for the two deserters reportedly gets calls every day from US soldiers looking for a way out of serving in Iraq.

And some US politicians have recently floated the notion of bringing back the draft, a move Mr Hinzman warns would send a wave of deserters across the border to join him.

"I think if that happens they might as well build housing developments here" for draft dodgers, he said.

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