|| 29 activists receive harsh prison
By PATRICK ONEILL
A federal magistrate in Columbus, Ga., sentenced 29 nonviolent activists to three-month and six-month prison terms on July 12 for trespassing last November at the U.S. Armys School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga. During the annual demonstration, which drew 10,000 activists to Fort Benning, those arrested went under or around a fence into the waiting arms of police.
It is harsh, said Maryknoll Fr. Roy Bourgeois, founder of SOA Watch, the organization that sponsors the annual protest at the school that trains Latin American military officers.
The harsh sentences are uncalled for in light of the action, Bourgeois said. Under or around a fence -- six months, three months -- whats going on here?
Among the 29, many of whom were Catholic, were three priests, a nun and two Presbyterian ministers. Those sent to prison ranged in age from 18 to 72, and included many parents, grandparents and college students. While many of those sentenced were seasoned activists, U.S. Magistrate G. Mallon Faircloth also gave prison terms to several first-time offenders. Faircloth also imposed fines, which ranged as high as $5,000, to 28 of the defendants.
The harsh sentences are designed to present obstacles to the movement -- to stop the growth of the movement, Bourgeois said. I think [Faircloth] may be thinking that these harsh sentences just might do it. But it has not worked in the past.
Of the original 43 defendants, charges were dropped against six, and seven others accepted a plea agreement and were sentenced to probation and fines. One defendant was acquitted. In many cases, those sent to prison had received recommendations from the U.S. Probation office to non-prison sentences. Faircloth ignored those recommendations.
Activists have spent more than a decade trying to close the school. Graduates of the school, which has been renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, have been implicated in numerous human rights abuses and atrocities in their native countries.
According to SOA Watch, 71 people have served a total of more than 40 years in jail and prison for protests calling for the closing of the school. Last year 26 people were prosecuted; 23 were sent to prison, including Sr. Dorothy Hennessey, an 88-year-old Franciscan nun who served six months in federal prison.
Those who speak out for justice are facing harsh prison sentences while SOA-trained torturers and assassins are operating with impunity, Bourgeois said.
Sister of Providence Kathleen Desautels, a human rights worker on the staff of the Chicago-based 8th Day Center for Justice, received the maximum six-month sentence.
Going to prison for six months pales in comparison with what the victims of the graduates of that school have to endure, she said.
In the last 20 years, Desautels said she has traveled to several Latin American nations -- including Bolivia, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Colombia -- seeing firsthand the tragic consequences of U.S. foreign policy. After numerous democratic options, such as lobbying, netted few results, Desautels said she opted for nonviolent direct action to bring attention to the human rights violations committed by the schools graduates.
Desautels said the harshness and punitive nature of the criminal justice system is simply part of a larger U.S. policy that is punitive on all levels.
You have punitive U.S. policy -- economic and political and military policy -- and the courts are part of that culture, part of that system. So it is no surprise to me because its all part of one piece, unfortunately.
John Heid, a Catholic Worker from Luck, Wis., also received a six-month sentence. Heid, 47, said he had hoped to use the courtroom to transform the judge. Thats what I was looking for; being part of a transformation process for that court.
Faircloth, who served as both judge and jury for the bench trials, was apparently unmoved by the testimony of the defendants.
Said Desautels: The hope was if you speak reason and truth to a person in power like that, their heart and conscience might be changed, said Desautels, but its not going to happen anytime soon, and it certainly did not happen in that courtroom.
Five of the defendants asked Faircloth if they could begin serving their prison sentences immediately. They were taken into custody and placed in a local jail pending assignment to a federal prison. The other two dozen are expected to self-surrender at minimum-security prisons within four to six weeks. They will be given from 10-14 days to report after being notified of the prison to which they are assigned.
Patrick ONeill is a freelance writer living in Raleigh, N.C.
The 37 defendents were:
Fr. William ODonnell, Berkeley, Calif., 72, sentenced
to six months in federal prison, $1,000 fine
National Catholic Reporter, August 2, 2002