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Last week, Army officials announced that the courts-martial, which were scheduled to begin earlier this month at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan, will instead be administered at the Fort Bragg military base in North Carolina. The military’s decision about the trials’ location follows months of petitioning by the New York chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans (OCA-NY) to have the trials moved to the States.
“This is a welcome victory for the community and the family,” said Elizabeth OuYang, OCA-NY president, at an April 12 press conference at the organization’s Chinatown offices. “It’ll be easier for our community to get there, and it’ll be easier for the family to get there,” she said of the trials’ East Coast location.
OuYang added, “The family deserves to be there, and the public needs to see what’s going on, in order for there to be legitimacy to this process.”
Making the courts-martial accessible to Chen’s parents and other relatives was one of the main reasons why the Army chose to hold the proceedings on U.S. turf, according to Colonel Kevin Arata, chief public affairs officer at Fort Bragg. The Army had previously advised the family against traveling to Afghanistan for the trials for safety reasons.
Another factor was that Private Chen’s unit is being redeployed back to America this week, Arata noted. So holding the trials in Afghanistan “would involve keeping people deployed [overseas] for more than one year, which is not congruent with our timeline,” he said.
Chen’s grieving parents were comforted by the development.
“When she heard the news, her heart felt so much better,” said Councilmember Margaret Chin, translating for Chen’s mother, Su Zhen Chen. “She wants to make sure they bring the eight people back to the U.S. so she could see the trials.”
Chin expressed her own thoughts, saying, “I hope that from now on, we can help heal her heart. Together, we got the Army to listen… . In North Carolina, the parents will be able to look at these eight people in the face, in their eye, and ask them, ‘Why, why did you do that to Danny?’ And hopefully we’ll get justice.”
Congressmember Nydia Velazquez also praised the Army’s decision, particularly since the Army wasn’t forthcoming in the weeks following Private Chen’s death. Velazquez vowed to continue fighting along with the community against the wrongdoings that led to Chen’s death.
“I’m so proud of the Asian community for coming together and forcing the Army to take a hard look at how we put in place measures that will prevent another death to take place among our soldiers,” Velazquez said. “This is the best reassurance that we can give to any mother or father who confronts the reality that one of their children might be joining the Army.”
Last October, Private Danny Chen, 19 — who lived with his partents in public housing in the East Village and was a Chinatown native — was found lifeless in a guard tower in Kandahar, with an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Kandahar is where Chen’s unit has been stationed since last summer.
It wasn’t immediately clear exactly when the court-martials would begin, since the forwarding of the eight soldiers’ charges to trial is a lengthy process. The trial of Sergeant Travis Carden, 25, who is charged with assault and reckless endangerment in Chen’s case, was supposed to start in Afghanistan on April 4. However, due to the change of venue, the trial has been delayed, and the charges against Carden that were recommended by Major General James L. Huggins, Jr. — the Afghanistan-based staff judge advocate — have been transferred to the Fort Bragg installation.
“This is a normal process, to move the cases from one jurisdiction to another,” said an Afghanistan-based attorney representing the military.
As of Mon., April 16, none of the eight cases had been referred to courts-martial, according to Colonel Runo Richardson, an attorney from Fort Bragg’s Staff Judge Advocate’s Office.
Using the evidence presented to them, the S.J.A. attorneys are charged with recommending by this month’s end which of the eight soldiers’ charges should be referred to the courts-martial, Richardson said. Lieutenant General Frank Helmick, representing the Court-Martial Convening Authority, will then make a final decision on the charges, based on the attorneys’ recommendation.
“If charges are referred,” Richardson said, “the accused will be arraigned, and their cases will be scheduled for trial.”
Another site previously under consideration for the Chen trials was Fort Wainwright, Alaska, the home base of Chen’s military unit. But holding the trials at Fort Bragg, one of the military’s largest domestic installations, ultimately made more sense, according to Arata.
“The bottom line is resources,” said Arata, noting that Fort Bragg has ample facilities, including courtrooms and hotels, to accommodate the trials and their participants.
The Southern base has a plethora of judges to arbitrate the cases. As for the members of the panels for the soldiers’ cases — the courts-martial equivalent of juries — they will be drawn from Fort Bragg’s 56,000 soldiers.
“We have the ability to pull a lot of support from there,” Arata said. “We also have a large pool of people within our post for both the prosecuting and defense trial counsel.”
The Army can’t predict how long the trials will last. An attorney representing Chen’s family told OuYang that the military is expected to complete the trials in seven months, but Arata said that time frame might be wishful thinking.
“Putting us down for a specific date would be kind of dangerous, since we haven’t referred charges yet,” Arata said of when the trials might end. He said unforeseen snags could potentially stall the judicial process.
“The important thing from our end is going through the correct court procedures to make sure we do it right,” he added.
Meanwhile, Chen’s family, OCA-NY and local politicians continue to pressure the Army to transfer all of the soldiers’ initial charges to the courts-martial, including involuntary manslaughter, which carries a 10-year prison sentence, and negligent homicide, which carries a maximum sentence of three years.
Following last week’s press conference, OuYang re-sent the petition advocating the cause to Major General Huggins in Afghanistan. Some 2,400 people from around the globe, including Malaysia, Vietnam and Europe, have signed the petition in just the last month, OuYang said, bringing the total signature count to 3,600.
“The family and community has every expectation they will be referred to the court-martial,” OuYang said of the eight soldiers. “They need to be tried to the fullest extent of the law.”
To commemorate Danny’s 20th birthday, which is on May 26, OCA-NY is organizing an arts performance at Pace University High School, featuring artists including R&B singer Taiyo, photographer Corky Lee and spoken-word artist Kris Lew, among others. OuYang anticipates a turnout of around 500 people at the event, which will take place on Thurs., May 24, so as not to conflict with Memorial Day weekend, OuYang said.
OCA-NY is also sponsoring a birthday card campaign for Chen, with the goal of collecting 10,000 cards and hand-delivering them next month to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington, D.C.
“The fight for justice is far from over, and we need your help with the next step,” reads a template created by OCA-NY available to card-writers.
Alternatively, people may make their own cards or submit a message online at http://justicefordannychen.tumblr.com/submit .
The cards are due by Mon., May 14. Participants making their own cards are asked to send them to OCA-NY, P.O. Box 3233, Church St. Station Post Office, New York, N.Y. 10018.