Sentence reduced for US conscientious objector

Amnesty International has welcomed the US military authorities’ reduction of a prison sentence being served by a US army sergeant, who refused to serve in Afghanistan because of his religious beliefs as a Christian.

At his court martial on 14 August 2009, Travis Bishop was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment for going absent without leave, suspension of two-thirds of his salary and a bad conduct discharge.

Lt General Robert Cone, commanding general of Fort Hood in Texas, approved the sentence reduction on 4 February after considering Travis Bishop’s clemency application. His lawyer estimates that he should now be released in late March, taking his good behaviour into account.

Travis Bishop has asked his lawyer to relay this message to the many people who have written letters of support, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you to everyone who wrote letters and supported me! This is amazing and unprecedented.”

Following Travis Bishop’s sentencing, the prison’s military authorities received hundreds of letters appealing for his release. His lawyer has personally thanked Amnesty International members “for all of your help on this case. I think the letters may have made the difference. It is extremely rare to get this much time reduced from a sentence”.

Travis Bishop has served in the US army since 2004. He was deployed to Iraq from August 2006 to October 2007. According to his lawyer, he had doubts about taking part in military action since then, but it was only in February 2009, when his unit was ordered to deploy to Afghanistan, that he considered refusing to go.

In the period before he was due to be deployed, Travis Bishop’s religious convictions became stronger, and led him to conclude that he could no longer participate in any war.

Travis Bishop’s sentence was imposed even though the US army was still considering his application for conscientious objector status.

In a statement made at the court-martial, Travis Bishop explained that he discovered he could apply for this status only days before his scheduled deployment to Afghanistan. He went absent without leave on the day of his deployment to give himself “time to prepare for my [conscientious objector] application process”.

He was away from his unit for about a week, during which he drafted his application and sought legal advice. He returned voluntarily, and on his return to the unit he submitted his application.

Amnesty International considers Travis Bishop to be a prisoner of conscience, imprisoned solely for his conscientious objection to participate in war.

The organization has recognized as prisoners of conscience a number of US soldiers refusing to deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan because of their conscientious objection.

They include Camilo Mejía, who was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment for his objection to the armed conflict in Iraq in 2004, and Abdullah Webster, who refused to participate in the same war due to his religious beliefs and was sentenced the same year to 14 months’ imprisonment.

Another, Kevin Benderman, was sentenced in 2005 to 15 months imprisonment after he refused to redeploy to Iraq because of abuses he allegedly witnessed there.

Agustin Aguayo was sentenced in 2007 to eight months’ imprisonment for his refusal to participate in the armed conflict in Iraq. All four have since been released.

Some of these conscientious objectors have been court-martialled and sentenced despite pending applications for conscientious objector status; others were imprisoned after their applications were turned down on the basis that they were objecting to particular wars rather than to war in general.