Page last updated at 00:59 GMT, Thursday, 19 March 2009

Asylum dilemma for US deserter

By Damien McGuinness
BBC News, Berlin and Freiburg

Andre Shepherd
Mr Shepherd says he could face the death penalty if returned to the US

American Iraq veteran Andre Shepherd shocked fellow servicemen when he walked off his military base in Germany and deserted the US army.

Now he is causing even more of a stir by applying for the right of asylum in Germany.

It was the middle of the night in April 2007 when Mr Shepherd packed a few things and walked out of the gates of his American army base in Katterbach onto German soil.

"I could no longer support this illegal war in Iraq with a clear conscience," explained the 31-year-old, who had been due to return to Iraq where he had already spent six months serving as an Apache helicopter mechanic.

"It has been proved that Saddam Hussein was not a direct threat to the United States and the war is simply being waged in order for the US to gain access to raw materials in the Middle East," he said.

After almost two years spent living underground in Germany, he has now applied for asylum.

His case rests on a European Union law guaranteeing refugee status to soldiers who might be prosecuted for desertion if military service involves violating international law.

This is just Shepherd's way of avoiding his responsibilities completely
Jonn Lilyea
Military blogger

According to Mr Shepherd, that is exactly what the war in Iraq does.

If sent back to the US, Mr Shepherd would be court-martialled and most likely sent to prison for a period of between six months and a couple of years.

"In theory desertion can also result in the death penalty," says Mr Shepherd, although the last US serviceman to receive this punishment was in 1945.

But German politicians are wary of supporting his case.

"A soldier deserting the army because his conscience no longer allows him to carry out his military duties is clearly not a reason for him to be granted political asylum here," says Christian Democrat (CDU) politician and deputy chair of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group, Wolfgang Bosbach.

Mr Shepherd is the first Iraq veteran to apply for refugee status in Europe, and there are fears that his case could encourage some of the other 60,000 American soldiers based in Germany to desert and do the same.

Others argue that granting him asylum would damage US-German relations by effectively defining the war in Iraq as illegal.

Public support

Iraq Veterans Against the War meeting
Campaigners say more than 25,000 US soldiers have deserted since 2003
The pretty medieval town of Freiburg in southern Germany, with its cobbled streets and ornate half-timbered houses, is a far cry from the bombs of Baghdad.

But, incongruous as it may be, it is here that the deserters' campaign group Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) is holding a discussion forum to gather support in Germany for Mr Shepherd's case.

According to anti-war campaigners, more than 25,000 US soldiers have deserted since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Although only 30 of them now live in Germany, they can count on substantial support here.

The majority of Germans have always opposed the war in Iraq, and German soldiers have never been sent to Iraq as part of the conflict.

Your home country will always think you are a traitor, whether you were justified or not
Andre Shepherd

Wearing a black T-shirt bearing the campaign's name, Chris Capps-Schubert explained that he deserted over disgust at how the war in Iraq was being waged.

"I worked in telecommunications and when I found myself laying down cables for Abu Ghraib prison, I just thought, oh, so that's what I'm doing here," he says, referring to the Baghdad detention centre where Iraqi prisoners were tortured by American soldiers.

Mr Capps-Schubert deserted his base in Mannheim after coming back from Iraq and before being sent out again to Afghanistan.

He turned himself in for court martial in May 2007, thereby avoiding a prison sentence. Today he advises US servicemen on how to leave the army.

US disgust

US soldiers in Baghdad, Iraq (01/03/2009)
Critics say Mr Shepherd left other soldiers to do what he would not
Although deserters are now getting a certain amount of support from American anti-war campaigners, Mr Shepherd's application for asylum has been scorned by many US servicemen and veterans.

"This is just Shepherd's way of avoiding his responsibilities completely - not going to Iraq and not willing to go to jail for breaking his promises and forcing his duties on his comrades," writes Desert Storm veteran and blogger, Jonn Lilyea.

Other military bloggers are even more direct with their criticisms, and the accusation of "coward" is one of the least offensive things Mr Shepherd is being called online.

At the end of February German immigration authorities heard Mr Shepherd's case, and are currently examining his eligibility for asylum. A decision should be reached within the next few months.

If asylum is knocked back, Mr Shepherd has said he will appeal to the courts, a process which could take up to five years.

In the meantime, Mr Shepherd can legally stay in Germany, but cannot return to the United States.

The decision to desert was not an easy one, Mr Shepherd says.

"Your home country will always think you are a traitor, whether you were justified or not," he explained.

"Although my family is supporting me, they wish I'd taken a different step, because the potential for me not returning [home] causes a lot of emotional stress. I have to apologise to my parents for that."

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