by Bob Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle. January 5, 2007

Twenty-eight opponents of the Iraq war were arrested after blocking entrances of the San Francisco federal courthouse Thursday during a demonstration in support of an Army officer who refused to go to Iraq, police said.

The demonstrators, from a group called Declaration for Peace, were among about 150 people from several organizations rallying outside the building at 450 Golden Gate Ave. to protest the war and support 1st Lt. Ehren Watada. After lying down in front of the entrances, they were arrested and cited for failing to comply with police orders to disperse, said Stella Meyerhof, an area commander with the Federal Protective Service.

Watada, 28, the first commissioned U.S. officer to publicly refuse deployment to Iraq, had a preliminary hearing Thursday at Fort Lewis, Wash., for his upcoming court-martial, which is scheduled for Feb. 5 at the same base.

He is charged with missing a troop movement, for failing to accompany his armored infantry unit to the Middle East in June, and with four counts of conduct unbecoming an officer, for criticizing the war and President Bush in press interviews and public statements. The charges are punishable by six years in prison.

Watada’s lawyer, Eric Seitz, asked a military judge to dismiss the charges based on his client’s statements, arguing that they were protected by freedom of speech. Seitz’s office said the judge did not rule on the issue at Thursday’s hearing.