National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  February 6, 2004

Peace activists sentenced to prison

Columbus, Ga.

A mother of five, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee and a 73-year-old retired theology professor were among a group of 22 peace activists sentenced to prison last week for trespassing on Fort Benning during a Nov. 23, 2003, protest against the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas, now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.

In three days of hearings and trials before U.S. Magistrate G. Fallon Faircloth, a total of 28 people pleaded guilty or were convicted of unlawful entry onto Fort Benning as part of the annual protest against the school that trains Latin American military officers. Opponents of the institute claim that scores of its graduates have gone on to commit human rights violations and killings in their native countries.

Faircloth sentenced defendants to prison terms ranging from 90 days to six months, and imposed fines ranging from $500 to $1,500. He suspended the remaining three weeks of Jesuit Fr. Benjamin Jimenez’s 90-day sentence. Jimenez had spent more than two months in the local county jail after refusing to post a $1,000 bond following his arrest. Six others received probation and fines.

Kathy Kelly, a three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee and cofounder of Voices in the Wilderness, was sentenced to 90 days in prison. Faircloth permitted Kelly, and others who requested it, to self-report to federal prisons at later dates.

Like Kelly, 52, who has made 24 trips to war-torn Iraq, many of the defendants recounted stories of living and working abroad, where they said they saw firsthand the negative effects of U.S. foreign and military policies toward the poor people living in these nations.

“We represent the voices of those who cannot be heard,” Kelly told Faircloth. “We need to hear these voices.”

A retired Vanderbilt University theology professor and Presbyterian minister, the Rev. Donald Beisswenger, 73, was sentenced to the maximum six-month term even though he had no prior criminal record. He had received a “ban and bar” letter for a previous Fort Benning protest.

With her three youngest sons in the gallery, mother of five and photographer Leisa Ann Faulkner-Barnes, 49, of Sacramento, Calif., was sentenced to a 90-day prison term and fined $500. Catholic father of nine, Gregory Poferl, 57, a postal worker union representative from St. Paul, Minn., received a 90-day prison term and a $1,000 fine.

Rich Wekerle, 67, a retired New York City firefighter and father of seven who works with Catholic young adults in Moscow, Idaho, and David Corcoran, 69, of Des Plaines, Ill., a married priest who left active ministry, both received maximum six-month sentences.

Three more priests, a brother and a nun were also sentenced to prison. Faircloth sentenced Franciscan Fr. Jerry Zawada, 66, of Burlington, Wis., to his second six-month sentence for trespass at Fort Benning. Jesuit Fr. Joseph E. Mulligan, 60, a Nicaraguan missionary, and Fr. Bernie Survil, 63, a priest in the diocese of Greenburg, Pa., both received 90-day sentences. Jesuit Br. Michael O’Grady, 41, of Cincinnati received a 90-day sentence with credit for time served for the two months he spent in jail before posting bond.

School Sister of Notre Dame Cynthia Brinkman, 67, a chaplain and domestic violence counselor from Ellington, Minn., received a six-month term.

Several defendants opted to begin serving their sentences immediately. Gary Ashbeck, a member of Baltimore’s Jonah House community, received a six-month sentence with credit for 67 days served. Ashbeck elected to remain in the Muscogee County Jail to complete the remainder of his term.

According to a news release from SOA Watch, the group that sponsors the annual demonstration, approximately 175 people have served more than 70 years in jail and prison stemming from the 14 years of protests at Fort Benning.

The protest is held each year to commemorate the Nov. 16, 1989, murders of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. SOA graduates were implicated in the murders.

Patrick O’Neill is a freelance writer living in Raleigh, N.C.

National Catholic Reporter, February 6, 2004

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