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Semrau saved comrade's life, court hears, as top brass call for his termination

Captain Robert Semrau leaves his military tribunal with his wife Amelie Lapierre-Semrau in Gatineau, Quebec July 19, 2010.

CHRIS WATTIE/Chris Wattie/Reuters

An army private says Captain Robert Semrau saved his life when their outpost came under heavy mortar fire in Afghanistan - but top brass say the disgraced soldier should be booted from the military.

A military sentencing hearing heard Monday from members of the rank-and-file who served with Capt. Semrau, as well as the top commander who was on the ground when the captain shot an unarmed and wounded insurgent after a bloody battle.

Private Joseph Villeneuve recounted how Capt. Semrau saved his life two years ago as insurgent shells rained down on their forward operating base.

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"We heard 'incoming!' so Capt. Semrau, he said, 'Get behind that truck.' ... We get behind the truck. Sure enough, the mortar hits on the other side of the Ford Ranger, the shrapnel hits the side," Pte. Villeneuve said.

"Saved my life right there."

But those heroics don't justify shooting a weaponless enemy fighter who had been nearly cut in half by helicopter fire, the former top Canadian commander in Kandahar testified.

Brigadier-General Denis Thompson argued the court has no choice but to kick Capt. Semrau out of the Canadian Forces.

"This particular conduct, in these particular circumstances, is such a blow to the credibility to the institution that as a deterrent I don't believe we have any other option than to release him from service," he said.

The general and Pte. Villeneuve were two of four witnesses who testified at the sentencing hearing. Capt. Semrau was convicted last week of disgraceful conduct in the shooting of a wounded and unarmed insurgent on an Afghan battlefield.

The presiding judge will consider the evidence from the hearing before handing down a sentence in the unprecedented case.

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Capt. Semrau could get up to five years in prison and dismissal from the military.

Pte. Villeneuve had high praise for the captain's actions in the mortar incident. He told the court how Capt. Semrau kept a cool head as he tended to several wounded Afghan soldiers, including one whose jugular had been severed by shrapnel.

"Capt. Semrau was up to his elbows in blood, just helping out," he said.

The 36-year-old captain was part of a team of Canadian soldiers assigned to the Afghanistan National Army as mentors.

Capt. Semrau had faced criminal charges in the case as well, for second-degree and attempted murder.

The panel found him not guilty of those charges as well as not guilty on a Defence Act charge of negligent performance of a military duty. He was found guilty of disgraceful conduct.

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Over the four-month trial, which included time in Afghanistan, the court heard from a dozen witnesses.

The testimony included descriptions of what Capt. Semrau was alleged to have said in the moments after he fired two rounds in the direction of a badly wounded insurgent.

The man had been strafed by a U.S. helicopter gunship and witnesses described devastating injuries, including a severed leg and a gaping hole in his abdomen.

Court heard that after shooting the man, Capt. Semrau told fellow officers he had done it to put him out of his misery.

Brig.-Gen. Thompson said it was never Capt. Semrau's call.

"That's not a judgement call to made by a soldier on the ground," he said. "It's to be made by medical staff."

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