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U.S. Captain Convicted In Cannibalism Case, Given Reprimand

February 24, 1989

SUBIC NAVAL BASE, Philippines (AP) _ A military jury spared a U.S. navy captain serious punishment after convicting him today of failing to help Vietnamese boat people who resorted to cannibalism to survive.

The jury of six Navy captains could have jailed Alexander Balian for 90 days and made him forfeit two-thirds of his pay for three months.

Instead, they gave the decorated Vietnam War veteran a reprimand, saying he erred last June 9 while his ship was in the South China Sea but deserved no further punishment than to be relieved of command, as he was in August.

Balian, 48, claimed he had been made a scapegoat over the incident and that ″heroes like me are hung out to dry when they get in trouble.″

The jury had acquitted him of the more serious charge of ordering one refugee shaken off ropes as he tried to climb aboard the amphibious landing ship USS Dubuque.

The jury deliberated nearly six hours before returning a verdict. It took a half hour to decide on the sentence.

Balian, of Los Angeles, was accused of failing to render adequate assistance to more than 80 Vietnamese refugees in a leaky boat the Dubuque encountered about 250 miles north of the Philippine island of Palawan.

U.N. officials said 31 of the refugees later died. Survivors said they had devoured the dead to survive before Filipino fishermen rescued them on June 27.

The jury found Balian guilty of dereliction of duty for failing to conduct an adequate inspection of the refugee boat; determine whether its sail was adequate; conduct appropriate medical examinations of visibly dehydrated refugees; provide necessary navigational equipment; provide adequate water and clothing to the naked, and take refugees aboard or see to it they were taken aboard or assisted by a Navy supply ship in the area.

The prosecution had claimed Balian abandoned the refugees in his rush to resume his voyage to the Persian Gulf, where the Dubuque took part in U.S. Navy security operations during the final days of the Iran-Iraq war.

The defense argued that he was under pressure from his commanders to reach the Persian Gulf, where the Dubuque served as mother ship for U.S. minesweepers and provided a backup force of 400 Marines.

Balian testified he did not pick up the refugees because he did not realize how desperate their situation was.

He also said he believed the refugees’ vessel seaworthy based on reports from the ship’s executive officer, Lt. Cmdr. Stanley Halter.

After the sentence, Balian told reporters he accepted responsibility for his decision but called the Navy investigation unfair.

He said an initial probe had cleared him of wrongdoing but that the second investigation was conducted by an officer of whom he had been critical.

Balian also said at least four members of his crew should be court- martialed for their actions. He did not identify them.

″In hindsight, I should have done it different,″ Balian said. He said the refugee problem was ″politically messy for the Navy because no matter how you look at it, the Navy was embarrassed.″

The captain also said there had been insufficient emphasis ″on what really happened on that junk, why two young children were allowed to die and why three were murdered and all five eaten. Where is the accountability for that?″

He said the jury was ″as fair as they could be, but the dirty procedures to get me to court martial are sickening.″

Balian took command of the Dubuque, a 16,500-ton vessel based in Sasebo, Japan, in May 1987 and was relieved of command last August.

He said he had received a new assignment as assistant chief of plans at the Navy’s telecommunications command in Washington but did not know whether he would stay in the service.

The captain denied prosecution allegations he did not care about the fate of Vietnamese refugees.

″I fought for them,″ he said. ″We fought and were wounded because we cared about the Vietnamese. God knows this didn’t come out well and I’m accountable, I’m responsible.″

In 1966, Balian won the Silver Star, the third highest military award for valor, and a Purple Heart for wounds because he saved members of his crew after their river patrol boat was caught in a Viet Cong night ambush.

Balian later served a second tour in Vietnam aboard a destroyer. His tours of duty since have included command of the ammunition supply ships USS Kilauea and USS Kiska, and the amphibious assault ship USS Peleliu.