An Afghan interpreter known only as "Max" told a court martial Saturday that he praised Capt. Robert Semrau when the Canadian infantry officer shot an unarmed and seriously wounded Taliban fighter in the head during a foot patrol in October 2008.
"I told Captain Rob, 'You did a good job, sir. I was happy because he was Taliban,'" Max told the court.
The young interpreter was testifying at the court martial of Semrau, who is the first Canadian soldier to ever face a murder trial for a battlefield slaying. The court martial moved from Canada to Afghanistan last week.
The interpreter had worked with a Canadian mentoring team attached to an Afghan army rifle company operating in Helmand province.
Max told prosecutor Capt. Thomas Fitzgerald on Saturday that when he and Semrau arrived on the scene, soon after a U.S. army Apache helicopter had blasted the insurgent from a tree, "he was moving, sir, he moved a little."
Moments later, Max told the court, "I saw he shot him." Semrau had aimed his weapon "at his head," he said.
To illustrate the point, the interpreter stood a few metres from where Semrau was seated in the courtroom, and adopted a posture that indicated that the 36-year-old Royal Canadian Regiment officer had aimed his rifle at the head of the insurgent, who was lying on the ground suffering from multiple injuries caused by the Apache gunship.
Under cross-examination, Max testified that after Semrau fired his weapon, he had seen "the smoke of the barrel." The interpreter also testified that he had an unobstructed view of the shooting from a distance of about five metres.
In an aside earlier in his testimony, Max referred to Semrau and stated, "I'll meet with him later." Neither the prosecution nor the defence asked what he meant by the remark.
Much of the interpreter's evidence, which was given in fluid but heavily accented English, was unsolicited. He often rushed to tell his version of events without waiting for questions from lawyers about an incident that resulted in Semrau being brought up on five charges, including second-degree murder, which carries a mandatory penalty of life imprisonment.
Max entered the court dressed in an elegant, loose-fitting red shirt with gold trim and two-tone, stonewashed dark denim trousers. Even before swearing an oath on the Qur'an to tell the truth, he greeted everyone in the court with a cheery "Hello gentlemen."
Without prompting, he volunteered: "I really like Canadians. I like working with Canadians."
In an amusing interlude while formally giving evidence, Max could not remember the name of another soldier who witnessed the shooting, but agreed that the man was a driver known to him as "the fat Canadian."
According to Max, the shooting upset "Capt. Shafiq," who was the senior Afghan on the patrol.
After hearing the shot, Shafiq approached Semrau and asked: " 'Why you do this? Why do you kill him? You must tell me first before you do this.' He looked angry and disappointed," Max said.
But Max said he could not remember what Semrau subsequently said to Shafiq before the 12-hour-long patrol returned to its base.
Looking very thoughtful in reading glasses, Semrau took notes during Max's 75 minutes of testimony, frequently making quiet remarks to the two military lawyers who have been defending him since the trial began in Gatineau, Que., in March.
Proving Semrau's innocence or guilt is complicated by the fact that the body of the insurgent, whose identify is unknown, was never recovered. So it is difficult to know whether he was dead or alive when it's alleged Semrau shot him.
Maj. Steve Turner, who cross-examined Max on Semrau's behalf, tried to challenge the interpreter's testimony that the insurgent was alive when he was shot. But Max did not change his story.
"I agree that he was alive because I saw movement," Max said. "I don't think he died."
However, in response to questions from Turner, Max agreed the insurgent's eyes were closed at the time and that there were no signs that he was breathing.
A grainy video shown to the court that was taken soon after it's alleged Semrau shot the insurgent showed the man lying on the ground, one arm draped across his mouth and the lower part of his body mostly obscured by a blanket. Semrau and Max, who was wearing an orange and blue shawl, could also be seen in the video.
Max confirmed that in the initial attack by the Apache gunship the insurgent had lost one leg, part of another leg and a finger and also had a wound in "his belly."
The interpreter agreed with Turner that because the incident had taken place some time ago, it was "possible" that he did not remember everything he had witnessed. Max also said that he had applied to emigrate to Canada under a special program for interpreters who have helped its troops here. He said he hoped that the nearly three years of work he had done for Canadian mentoring teams and the testimony he had given the court martial would "help" him in his bid to emigrate.
The four-member panel of officers hearing the case must decide if Semrau is guilty of second degree murder. The lesser charges to be considered are whether he attempted to commit murder using a firearm, behaved in a disgraceful manner and negligently performed a military duty imposed on him.
The general court martial before Lt.-Col. Jean-Guy Perron resumes Monday with testimony from another Afghan witness in a big tent on this sprawling NATO base.