GATINEAU, Que. - An exemplary army officer admired by his troops and praised by his superiors saw his career vanish Tuesday, as a military judge ordered him kicked out of the military for shooting a wounded insurgent in Afghanistan.
Capt. Robert Semrau is to be reduced to the rank of second-lieutenant and dismissed from the Canadian Forces for shooting a severely wounded and unarmed Taliban fighter after a firefight in Helmand province two years ago.
Semrau was convicted by a court martial in July of disgraceful conduct but acquitted of second-degree murder, attempted murder, and negligent performance of duty.
Semrau strode from the courtroom without a word, clutching the hand of his wife, after Lt.-Col. Jean-Guy Perron handed down the sentence. His defence team said they would discuss the possibility of an appeal.
Perron described Semrau as an exemplary officer whose men testified to his courage and leadership and whose commander would happily have him back. He said the shooting was clearly out of character. But, he said, none of that mitigated the gravity of the offence.
"In the military context, you committed a grave breach of discipline... You personally failed to abide by one of our most important principles: that of using force only in accordance with lawful orders."
Perron said Semrau had to face the consequences of ''a decision that will cast a shadow on you for the rest of your life.''
No Canadian soldier has ever been charged in connection with a battlefield shooting and the judge said he could not find any precedents for sentencing.
Other cases involving disgraceful conduct were no help because most of those charges were for sex-related offences. Perron refused to compare the Afghanistan incident to the Somalia scandal of the 1990s, in which several Canadian soldiers abused and killed a teenager.
Witnesses testified Semrau fired two shots into the body of the wounded insurgent and told them he wanted to put the man out of his misery.
But Perron said mercy killing is no excuse.
''You ... might have been motivated by an honest belief you were doing the right thing, nevertheless, you committed a severe breach of discipline,'' he said. ''How can we expect our soldiers to follow the laws of war if our officers do not?''
The disgraceful conduct charges carries up to five years imprisonment as a penalty, but the judge said he didn't think prison was appropriate. He also said he didn't think it was right to dismiss Semrau from the Forces in disgrace, a technicality which would have precluded his ever getting a government job or serving the Crown in any manner again.
Lt.-Gen. Peter Devlin, commander of the army, said the case was complex and was dealt with accordingly.
"Canadian soldiers are well versed in the laws of war and are expected by the Canadian Army to maintain the highest standards of conduct... We remain committed to reinforcing the laws of armed conflict as part of the education and training undertaken by every member of the Canadian Forces."
Lt.-Col Bruce MacGregor, a senior officer in the office of the judge advocate general, called the sentence "well thought through.''
''The military judge sent a message that discipline is the heart of leadership with the Canadian Forces,'' he said. ''A leader cannot have those types of actions, which is disgraceful conduct.''
The defence had asked for a reduction in rank and a severe reprimand, while the prosecution wanted a jail sentence of two years less a day, plus dismissal.
Semrau, 36, is the father of two girls. He served with the British army before joining the Canadian Forces.
At the time of the incident, he was part of a team of Canadian soldiers assigned to the Afghanistan National Army as mentors.
The insurgent lay on the verge of death after an intense firefight that pitted Canadian and Afghan forces against the Taliban. He had been strafed by a U.S. helicopter gunship and witnesses described devastating injuries, including a severed leg and a gaping hole in his abdomen.
Witnesses said Afghan army troops refused to render medical aid.
An Afghan captain, who was on the patrol, testified the Taliban fighter was "98 per cent dead'' when he was found.
The legal saga began with pre-trial motions last January. Hearings began in March and ran, off-and-on, until July, including a trip to Afghanistan to take testimony from Afghan witnesses.
The five-member court panel, the equivalent of a military jury, spent more than two days considering the case against the officer before acquitting him on the most serious charges.