TORONTO (AP) – Canada on Thursday denied refugee status to a former U.S. Army paratrooper who said he would be committing war crimes if sent to Iraq, a major blow to Americans who have fled north of the border rather than fight a war they claim commits atrocities against civilians.

The government’s ruling said Jeremy Hinzman had not made a convincing argument that he would face persecution or cruel and unusual punishment if sent back to the United States.

The decision, which was formally announced on a government Web site, could affect at least eight – and possibly dozens more – American soldiers seeking refuge in Canada, yet help improve strained relations between Washington and Ottawa.

Hinzman’s attorney, Jeffry House, said his client would appeal the ruling and still believed he would be granted refugee status in Canada.

“He is disappointed,” House told CBC TV. “We don’t believe that people should be imprisoned for doing what they believe is illegal.”

Hinzman, 26, fled from Fort Bragg, N.C., in January 2004, weeks before his 82nd Airborne Division was due to be deployed to Iraq. He had served three years in the Army, but had applied for conscientious objector status before his unit was sent to Afghanistan in 2002.

Hinzman lives with his wife and young son in Toronto, where Quakers and the War Resisters coalition of anti-war groups have taken on his cause and provided some shelter. Coalition supporters intend to demonstrate later Thursday in front of the U.S. Consulate in Toronto.

Hinzman could face charges of desertion if sent home and would face up to five years in prison. He and seven other U.S. military deserters are being represented by House, a Wisconsin native who came to Canada in 1970 as a draft dodger during the Vietnam War.

Canada opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The Pentagon has urged the deserters to return to the United States and take up their concerns at their respective military bases.

Immigration and Refugee Board member Brian Goodman, who wrote the ruling, said Hinzman may face some employment and social discrimination. But, he added, “the treatment does not amount to a violation of a fundamental human right, and the harm is not serious.”

Hinzman argued before the Immigration and Refugee Board last December that he would have been taking part in war crimes if he had been deployed with his unit. He claimed the war in Iraq was illegal and he would be persecuted if forced to return to the United States.

House believes as many as 100 other American war resisters are hiding in Canada, waiting to see how Hinzman’s case is played out before coming forward. He said 30,000 to 50,000 Americans fled to Canada during Vietnam and were allowed to settle here, but Hinzman would have become the first American soldier to be granted political asylum in the country.

During the Vietnam era, young American men could be drafted into military service, but now enlistment in U.S. military is voluntary. The military attracts many young recruits with job skills training and programs that help pay for university.

Pvt. 1st Class Joshua Key, 26, of Oklahoma City is the latest war resister to flee to Toronto, arriving two weeks ago with his wife and four children. He told the Toronto Star that he served in Iraq with the 43rd Combat Engineering Company, which was deployed in April 2003.

Key said he served eight months in Iraq before he left the military when he was on leave back at the 43rd’s base in Fort Carson, Colorado in December 2003.

“I was in combat the entire time I was there,” said Key. “I left for Iraq with a purpose, thinking this was another Hitler deal. But there were no weapons of mass destruction. They had no military whatsoever. And I started to wonder.”

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