US soldier’s German asylum plea imperils ties

An expected thaw in relations between the US and Germany following the election of Barack Obama faces an unexpected obstacle after an Iraq war deserter asked for asylum in Germany.

André Shepherd, a US Army specialist who had been living underground in southern Germany since going absent without leave 1½ years ago, filed his application last week, he told the Financial Times in a telephone interview from an undisclosed location. “I’ve done enough research to come to the conclusion that what is happening in Iraq is not the equivalent of World War II but outright massacre,” Mr Shepherd said. “We are not the freedom fighters we think we are.”

His application was the first such move by an Iraq war deserter in Europe.

Under a 2004 European directive, now part of German law, the country must grant asylum to deserters if the conflicts they are fleeing from are being conducted in an unlawful manner. Mr Shepherd, 31 has been staying with German friends, often changing locations and working illegally on construction sites. He said he was reconciled to the idea that a successful asylum application would make it impossible for him ever to return to the US. “I miss my family a lot, but Germany has also become a second home” he said.

Mr Shepherd’s lawyer, Reinhard Marx, said: “Legally, his prospects are looking very good.” The German Federal Administrative Court ruled in 2005 that the Iraq War violated international law and labelled the invasion an act of aggression.

But Mr Marx added: “Politically, things do not look so good. You can have doubts as to whether the government would grant asylum to a US deserter .”

If successful, Mr Shepherd’s application could create a problematic precedent for the US military in Germany, home to 66,000 active-duty personnel, the largest US military overseas presence outside Iraq.

Mr Shepherd’s application makes him a deserter under the US military justice code.

Yet as an asylum seeker, he now enjoys the protection of the German federal government.

“If the Americans grab him, there will be very little we can do but I assume they will respect German law,” Mr Marx said.

Desertion in time of war carries a possible death sentence in the US, although in practice Iraq war deserters have faced prison sentences ranging from nine months to 1½ years.

While several US servicemen have filed for asylum in Canada, home to most deserting Iraq war veterans, the government there has turned down applications.

Mr Shepherd, from Cleveland, Ohio, joined the army after college in 2004 and served on a forward operating base near Tikrit in Iraq from September 2004 to February 2005, servicing Apache helicopters, before being transferred to Germany.

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