TORONTO – A court ordered Canada's refugee board Friday to take another look at a U.S. Army deserter's failed bid for asylum in a ruling that could affect scores of other American soldiers who have refused to fight in Iraq.
Canada's Federal Court found that the Immigration and Refugee Board made mistakes in turning down Joshua Key's claim for asylum. Key served as a combat engineer in Iraq for eight months in 2003 before deserting to Canada with his family while on leave.
About 200 American military deserters are believed to have come to Canada to avoid service in Iraq. Canadian immigration officials and the courts have so far rejected efforts to grant them refugee status.
This is the first ruling in their favor and it could affect other cases.
Key, a 30-year-old Oklahoma native and father of four, has said that American soldiers committed savage acts against civilians and routinely killed innocent people.
While the board deemed him credible, it denied his claim for refugee status on the grounds that he was not required to systematically commit war crimes.
But Federal Court Justice Robert Barnes disagreed with that analysis and said that being forced to participate in military misconduct, even if it stops short of a war crime, may support a claim for protection in Canada.
Military action that "systematically degrades, abuses or humiliates" either combatants or noncombatants could provide such support, Barnes wrote.
"It's quite a statement," Key said. "It makes us feel good — probably everybody within this whole process."
Lee Zaslofsky, of the War Resisters Support Campaign, was happy with Friday's ruling.
"Oh wow. Oh wow. That's big. That affects all cases," said Zaslofsky, who came to Canada from the U.S. in the 1970s to avoid the Vietnam War draft.
In turning down several similar asylum claims, the refugee board has consistently held that the United States is a democracy, which affords deserters due process.
However, the court said the board should hear evidence on whether deserters can rely on the American government to treat them fairly.
Key's lawyer, Jeffry House, said the ruling may help the cases of others.
"It's a huge victory for numerous soldiers who are here and maybe others who are thinking of coming here," House said.
A spokeswoman for Canadian Immigration Minister Diane Finley said they were reviewing the court decision.
During the war in Vietnam, thousands of Americans fled to Canada to avoid the draft. Many were given permanent residence status that eventually resulted in citizenship.