Refugee or deserter?
Some see Jeremy Hinzman as a brave resister. To others, he's a traitor.
Days before Jeremy Hinzman was to be deployed to Iraq in January 2004, the young United States military paratrooper, his wife, and toddler son piled into their Chevy and drove 18 hours from Fort Bragg, N.C., to Canada.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Hinzman deserted the 82nd Airborne Division, he later said, to avoid committing acts that would violate his conscience, religious principles, and international law.
Temperatures in Canada were bone-chilling that month. But Hinzman, a specialist and crack infantryman, hoped for a warm reception from the Canadian government, which he thought might recognize deserters from the US war in Iraq as refugees.
But last month, Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board in Toronto dismissed Hinzman's request for asylum, stating that it was unconvinced that he would risk his life and face possible persecution and cruel or unusual punishment for desertion - the standard for claiming refugee status - if he returned to the US.
More than 5,500 US military personnel have deserted since the invasion of Iraq, but Hinzman is the first US soldier to apply for refugee status in Canada.
As many as 100 US war deserters may be in hiding in Canada, says the Toronto-based War Resisters Support Campaign, an antiwar coalition petitioning the Canadian federal government to allow soldiers opposed to fighting in Iraq to stay in Canada.
The Hinzman case once again raises questions long attached to cases of those who quit military duty for what they say are reasons of conscience.
When such soldiers are brought to trial are they being prosecuted - or persecuted? Can adherence to conscience and convictions ever override the need to honor duty and contract obligations?
The dismissal of Hinzman's asylum petition, analysts say, has particular meaning for this generation of US war deserters. It tells those who had hoped to find legal refuge in Canada that doing so will be an uphill battle.
Over the years, many conscientious objectors fleeing military service have succeeded in their refugee claims in Canada, says Audrey Macklin, law professor at the University of Toronto. But all faced conscription in nondemocratic countries. No US citizen has ever won asylum in Canada.
During the Vietnam War, Canada did not have a refugee determination system, so US draft dodgers were treated as immigrants and permitted to remain.
Hinzman's future, however, is much less certain. For the moment, he is working as a bike courier to support his family in Toronto, while his lawyer, Jeffry House, says they are awaiting a response to their appeal from the Federal Court of Canada. If that fails, Hinzman's last chance would be to appeal to the Canadian immigration minister on compassionate grounds.
Mr. House, who also represents nine other US military deserters currently living in Canada, will take some of their refugee claims before the immigration board starting in June. The circumstances that led to the desertions of House's other clients vary. Half of them had served in the Iraq war before escaping another deployment.
However, the soldiers applying for refugee status in Canada are essentially making the same argument as Hinzman. They say they are opposed to fighting in the Iraq war for reasons of conscience.
The crime of desertion during wartime does carry a possible death penalty in the US. However, House acknowledges, wartime deserters like Hinzman are more likely to be court-martialed and serve up to five years in jail if they return to the US.
Canadian adjudicator Brian Goodman, the immigration board member who denied Hinzman's claim, acknowledges that Hinzman might encounter job bias and social discrimination if he returns to the US. However, he ruled, discrimination and a jail term were not human rights violations.
In the US, some disagree. "To the extent that most employment contracts don't include incarceration or possible death for breach of contract, the argument could be made that in the case like this, the punishment would be considered excessive and therefore persecution," says Jan Brown, attorney and chairman of the New York State Bar Association's Immigration and Nationality Committee.