OPN_190511 Michael Behenna_P1-1557577251866
In this Sunday, Sept. 21, 2008, file photo, 1st Lt. Michael C. Behenna, left, and his defense attorney Capt. Tom Clark, right, walk in Camp Speicher, a large U.S. base near Tikrit, north of Baghdad, Iraq. Image Credit: AP file

In the US, a presidential pardon is a privilege granted to the president of the United States under Article II, Section 2 of the United States Constitution, which states that the president ‘shall have the power to grant reprieves and pardons for offences against the United States, except in cases of impeachment.’

Subsequent decisions by the US Supreme Court have included the power to ‘commutations of sentence, conditional commutations of a sentence, remissions of fines and forfeitures, respites, and amnesties.’

While all pardon petitions are addressed to the president, who grants or denies the request, the pardon powers are limited only to convictions under federal law. However, in the case of a federal conviction, the president can of his own will issue a pardon.

In 2008, while serving in Iraq, Michael Behenna, a former United States Army first lieutenant coldbloodedly shot and killed an Iraqi prisoner. Behenna’s crime was brutally carried out against a helpless Iraqi detainee Ali Mansour Mohammad during the US occupation of Iraq in 2008. Ordered to release a detainee for lack of evidence, Lieutenant Behenna stopped outside a remote northern town in Iraq and with the help of Sergeant Warner started ripping off Ali Mansour’s clothes with their knives. They then untied his hands.

Witnesses on the scene told the court that Behenna then pushed the naked prisoner to the ground and then pulled out his gun and shot him without any provocation.

“I was standing 10 metres back during the shooting. I could see everything even if it was getting dark, and Sergeant Warner was next to me. Warner then took the grenade from his pocket, pulled the safety ring, walked around and put the grenade under Ali Mansour’s head. Then they hid his clothes, and Behenna and Warner went back to camp.”

Local villagers found Mansour’s burned and badly disfigured body the next day. Spurred by the ghastly scene they had witnessed, two US soldiers from the same battalion as the accused testified against Behenna in court.

Guilty as charged ... and released

On July 31, 2008, Behenna was relieved of his command and charged with the premeditated murder of Ali Mansour. At the trial, the defence contended that Behenna was under an acute stress disorder as a result of the attacks on US forces from the Iraqis. In less than four hours, the jury found Behenna guilty of murder. He was convicted of war crimes during a court hearing and was sentenced to 25 years imprisonment, which was later reduced to 15 years. He was eventually released on parole after serving less than 5 years of his sentence. Last week, Behenna received a full presidential pardon for his deeds.

John Richter, Behenna’s lawyer stated that “We know we have a president who is very sympathetic to the very difficult situation that soldiers, sailors, and Marines were put in during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars,” while the White House in explaining the pardon said, ‘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.”

While the US president may have acted out of good intentions, his decision has resonated throughout US armed forces camps stationed across the world, and the message that they must have heard was that it was OK to murder your foe on the battlefield and get away with it, Geneva Convention be damned.

The national security director at the American Civil Liberties Union was not impressed by the pardon.

“This pardon is a presidential endorsement of a murder that violated the military’s own code of justice. 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.”

Herein lies the concern. With war crimes mounting in areas where foreign forces have stationed their troops, crimes against locals rarely make the headlines unless some morally conscious individual from within the occupying forces blows the whistle as was the case in the Ali Mansour’s murder. And when the perpetrators are brought to justice, their reprieve after a few short years takes most of us by surprise.

While Behenna’s presidential exoneration has brought unbridled joy to his family, one wonders about what Ali Mansour’s clan is going through. What value have we assigned to the lives of those murdered? Will we see more such crimes? And will the perpetrators continue to get away with it?

Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena.