Capt. Robert Semrau (center) arrives for his general court martial proceedings in Gatineau on Monday. Semrau is being charged for the shooting death of a wounded insurgent in Afghanistan in October 2008.

Capt. Robert Semrau (center) arrives for his general court martial proceedings in Gatineau on Monday. Semrau is being charged for the shooting death of a wounded insurgent in Afghanistan in October 2008.

Soldier accused of battlefield execution wants court martial at Kandahar base

A ground-breaking court martial involving an alleged battlefield execution in Afghanistan will spend at least a week dealing with procedural matters — including a request to move the trial to Kandahar.

GATINEAU, Que. — A ground-breaking court martial involving an alleged battlefield execution in Afghanistan will spend at least a week dealing with procedural matters — including a request to move the trial to Kandahar.

Capt. Robert Semrau, 36, is charged with second-degree murder and an array of other military offences in the death of an unidentified, disarmed and badly wounded Taliban insurgent during an operation in Hellmand Province in August 2008.

The body of the insurgent at the centre of the case was never recovered.

It’s believed to be the first case in which a Canadian soldier has been charged with a battlefield murder since at least before the Second World War.

Semrau’s court martial was to have begun Monday at a sprawling military complex across the Ottawa River from the capital. But a half dozen procedural applications launched by his lawyer will delay the presentation of evidence, likely until next week at the earliest.

Maj. Steve Turner laid out the broad direction of those applications Monday and most deal with perceptions of impartiality in the military court martial process.

Turner opened with the seemingly picayune: Whether five, yet-to-be-selected officers acting as jurors — or panellists in court martial parlance — should be required to wear civilian clothing.

“The panel will necessarily have a pecking order,” if full dress uniforms are worn, as is standard procedure, Turner argued.

The point of the application, he said, is “to promote and encourage as much equality on the panel as possible.”

Lt. Col. Mario Leveillee, the military’s director of prosecutions, provided a withering response that characterized Turner’s Charter-based arguments as “fundamentally flawed and at times frankly incoherent.”

The judge advocate, Col. Mario Dutil, dismissed the uniform question Monday.

Other defence applications will request that all or part of the trial be moved to Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan, or to Pembroke, Ont., near where Semrau is currently stationed at Canadian Forces Base Petawawa.

Semrau’s wife of 10 years, a kindergarten teacher, and their 18-month-old daughter live in Pembroke, a two-hour drive west of Ottawa.

The defence will also present arguments about judicial impartiality in the court martial process; the length of the delay in bringing Semrau to trial; and the process used for selecting panellists at courts martial. Anyone lower in rank than the accused is automatically excluded from panel selection, a practice that Turner argued in his application has “no military necessity or logical basis.”

Finally, Turner said he’ll be making arguments concerning the military sentencing regime and how the proscribed penalties lack the range of options available to civilian courts.

Semrau was commanding Afghan army soldiers in the British-controlled area of Lashkar Gah when they were ambushed by Taliban forces during a long foot patrol on Oct. 19, 2008.

A joint defence-prosecution “synopsis” of the incident filed in court last year states that a U.S. Apache helicopter was called in for support, after which the group discovered one dead insurgent and another with wounds “too severe for any type of treatment” in the field.

An assault rifle was taken from the injured man and he was photographed “in accordance with standard procedures.” Semrau was allegedly seen firing his rifle at the man, and witnesses will say two shots were heard.

“Immediately afterward, all forces resumed the mission and the body of the severely wounded insurgent was left behind. That body has not been recovered,” said the synopsis.