The American Civil Liberties Union has come out against President Donald Trump’s decision to pardon a U.S. soldier convicted in 2009 of murdering an unarmed Iraqi man.
The White House announced that Trump had signed a full pardon for former Army 1st Lt. Michael Behenna of Oklahoma on Monday.
Behenna, who served with the 101st Airborne Division, was convicted of unpremeditated murder in a combat zone after killing a suspected al-Qaida terrorist in Iraq. He was released on parole in 2014 and was scheduled to remain on parole until 2024.
“This pardon is a presidential endorsement of a murder that violated the military’s own code of justice,” Hina Shamsi, the ACLU’s national security project director, said in a statement first reported by the Hill.
Behenna was originally sentenced to 25 years in prison, but the Army’s highest appellate court noted concern about how the trial court had handled Behenna’s claim of self-defense, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Monday.
“The military appeals court found Behenna disobeyed orders, became the aggressor against his prisoner, and had no justification for killing a naked, unarmed Iraqi man in the desert, away from an actual battlefield. Trump, as commander in chief, and top military leaders should prevent war crimes, not endorse or excuse them,” Shamsi said in her statement.
The Army Clemency and Parole Board reduced Behenna’s sentence to 15 years and paroled him five years into his sentence, in 2014.
During his trial, Behenna acknowledged that he was ordered to escort the prisoner back home prior to the murder. However, he instead took the prisoner to a railroad culvert, stripped him and questioned him at gunpoint about a roadside bomb that killed two members of Behenna’s platoon.
Behenna said the man moved toward him during the interrogation and he shot him, fearing the Iraqi man was attempting to take Behenna’s weapon.
“Mr. Behenna’s case has attracted broad support from the military, Oklahoma elected officials, and the public,” the White House statement reads. “Thirty-seven generals and admirals, along with a former Inspector General of the Department of Defense, signed a brief in support of Mr. Behenna’s self-defense claim.”
Behenna also received a strong showing of support from Oklahoma political leaders, including the state’s previous governor, Mary Fallin, and current Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter.
“Further, while serving his sentence, Mr. Behenna was a model prisoner. In light of these facts, Mr. Behenna is entirely deserving of this Grant of Executive Clemency,” the White House said.
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter whose investigations have covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.