Nearly two months after he petitioned the German government for political asylum, a U.S. soldier was informed this week that his first formal hearing with an immigration official will occur early next month.
For Army Spc. André L. Shepherd, the meeting will provide the opportunity to explain to a representative of the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees why he wants asylum. Shepherd’s attorney, Reinhard Marx, confirmed the hearing is scheduled for Feb. 4 in Karlsruhe. The session is not open to the public.
"This is a major phase of the whole procedure," Marx said. "He will have the chance to express his motivation for seeking asylum."
Shepherd, a helicopter mechanic assigned to the 412th Aviation Support Battalion, headquartered in Katterbach, Germany, filed his petition Nov. 26. He publicly announced his decision the following day.
In his petition, Shepherd cited a European Union directive on standards and procedures for granting refugee status. It instructs member states to consider a candidate for refugee status "persecuted" if, in the course of military service, he or she is required to perform criminal acts.
Shepherd’s application also invokes elements of the Geneva Conventions and legal principles emanating from the Nuremburg trials of 1945-49.
The 30-year-old from Ohio has characterized the war in Iraq as illegal and said he no longer wanted to be "an instrument of destruction." He accused the Bush administration of lying to U.S. servicemembers and said his problem is not with the military but with Washington.
Shepherd served in Iraq from September 2004 to February 2005. When his unit was tapped to return to Iraq in mid-2007, he deserted and hid out in Bavaria until it returned to garrison last fall.
The Army has not commented on the Shepherd case other than to encourage him and other deserters to turn themselves in.
Shepherd took the extraordinary step of seeking asylum — the first U.S. servicemember to do so in Germany — to avoid a prison sentence and the stigma of a federal conviction. Since he filed his petition, Shepherd has been staying at a refugee center in Karlsruhe.
Like the U.S. military, German officials have said little publicly about the case. A spokesman for the German Interior Ministry, which includes the office for migration and refugees, wouldn’t even confirm the February hearing.
"I can only tell you that the hearing did not take place yet," ministry spokesman Christoph Hübner said Friday.
Hübner did say that in many refugee cases a decision takes about six months from the time a petition is filed. That decision, he noted, is one that will be made by the migration office, which is based in Nuremburg.
The hearing in February will likely take two to three hours, according to Marx, Shepherd’s attorney. The session will include Shepherd, Marx, the case officer and a government-appointed translator. Hübner said Shepherd can have his own translator present, too, but at his expense.
Because of the sensitivity of the case — the United States and Germany are close allies — Marx suspects the final decision will be made not by the migration office but by a senior officer in the Interior Ministry in Berlin.