Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Human Rights Advocates Given Maximum Federal Prison Sentences

Speaking Truth to Power

Human Rights Advocates Given Maximum Federal Prison Sentences of Six Months for Direct Action Opposing the School of the Americas (SOA/WHINSEC)

Judge Finds SOA Watch Activists Guilty for Carrying Protest against the SOA/WHINSEC onto Fort Benning, Issues Arrest Warrant for Michael Walli for Refusing to Appear for the Trial. Father Louie in Georgia Jail.

On Monday, January 25, 2010, U.S. Magistrate G. Mallon Faircloth sentenced three human rights advocates to six months in federal prison for carrying a protest against the School of the Americas onto the Fort Benning military base in Georgia. This school, re-named the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, is a controversial U.S. Army training school for Latin American soldiers.

Father Roy Bourgeois, a Roman Catholic priest and the founder of SOA Watch, the organization that works to close the School of the Americas said "Judge Faircloth has sentenced our sister and brothers to 6 months in federal prison for speaking the truth about the SOA/WHINSEC. We are saddened by the court's continued blindness and hardness of heart, but we are stronger than ever in solidarity. These sentences are symbolic of our nation's misdirection, but they are also great steps forward for our resistance movement. It is truer today, than ever before, that although they jail the resisters they have not, and cannot, jail the resistance!"

The "SOA 4" are:

Nancy Gwin, long-time activist from Syracuse, New York - sentenced to six months in prison

Father Louie Vitale, veteran and priest from Oakland, CA - sentenced to six months in prison

Ken Hayes, SOA Watch Council member from Austin, TX - sentenced to six months in prison

Michael Walli, a member of the Catholic Worker movement from Washington, DC refused to appear for the trial in Georgia. Walli had told the court during his November arraignment that he would not pay any bail and that he would not voluntarily return for the trial. "I walk out and it's goodbye" Walli told Judge Mallon Faircloth. Michael Walli made good on his promise and on Monday, Judge Mallon Faircloth issued a warrant for Michael Walli's arrest.

The "SOA 4" were among the tens of thousands who gathered on November 20-22, 2009 outside the gates of Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia to demand a change in U.S. policy in Latin America and the closure of the SOA/WHINSEC. The group peacefully crossed onto Fort Benning while thousands stood vigil at the gates of the base in memory of those killed by graduates of the institution.

The SOA/WHINSEC, a military training facility for Latin American security personnel, made headlines in 1996 when the Pentagon released training manuals used at the school that advocated torture, extortion and execution.

Nancy Gwin's trial statement

(Nancy is on trial for her work to close the School of the Americas along with Louie Vitale and others.)

Your Honor, I’ve brought a woven fabric, a tapestry from Guatemala, with me today to remind those in the courtroom of the beauty of the people of Latin America, of their gifts. And, this weaving is also a reminder of what violence does to beauty.

Your Honor, my name is Nancy Gwin. I was born in Nebraska, growing up in a small town there. My home is now Syracuse, New York. I wish to speak to you of my journey to the prayer vigil to close the School of the Americas/WHINSEC on Sunday, November 22, 2009.

I am a war orphan---my father, Boyd Gwin is MIA/Missing in Action in North Korea, an Air Force/National Air Guard Pilot whose plane was shot down in January, 1953. I am a peace activist in my father’s honor. As a young woman I committed to do what I could in my lifetime to make the strong statement, “No more war orphans, no more widows or Gold Star mothers.”

Many veterans are working to close the School of the Americas/WHINSEC. I like to think I stand with them and understand their indignity of knowing such a training school exists within the United States Armed Forces.

I have been to El Mozote in the Morazan Department of El Salvador, walked on the grounds where people were massacred and visited the small museum there. Graduates of the School of the Americas, Salvadoran armed forces trained by U.S. military, killed at least 1000 civilians at El Mozote. It is estimated that 130 were children under the age of twelve. I have a granddaughter who will turn twelve this week.

Your Honor, I am a person of faith, a church woman. My faith tradition is the United Church of Christ, although I have great respect for other religious traditions. Whenever I have been able, I have journeyed to other countries in Latin America to interface with the people, to witness the impact of the economic and foreign policies of the United States first hand.

The United Church of Christ has adopted a Resolution “Calling for the Close of the U.S. Army School of the Americas” which I have attached to my statement. I quote:

“Whereas it has been established that people of faith, working in solidarity with people of Central America, have been murdered by soldiers trained at the School of the Americas, namely those responsible for the assassinations of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the four North American church women, the six Jesuit priests, their Housekeeper and her daughter, all in El Salvador; . . .

“Be it further resolved that the Twenty-first General Synod endorses continued efforts by the School of the Americas Watch in Fort Benning, Georgia, Washington, D.C. and local Central American solidarity organizations across the country, to push for closing the School of the Americas; . . .”

I visited Acteal, Chiapas, Mexico where forty-five Catholic indigenous people, including fifteen children, gathered at a prayer meeting were massacred on December 27, 1997. They were members of the pacifist group, “Las Abejas”. Mexican graduates of the School of the Americas/WHINSEC have played an active role in the civilian-targeted warfare in their country.

Your Honor, I treasure the ideal of a truly democratic process where a person may decide to run for elected office, cast an unfettered vote for the candidate of his or her choice. I have served as an International Election Observer, trained and certified, in elections in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Haiti and witnessed people there working hard to assure fair and free elections; to revitalize democracy.

I was not surprised to learn that the general, Gen. Romeo Vasquez Velasquez, who led the coup in Honduras on June 28, 2009 which overthrew democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya is a two-time graduate of the School of the Americas. This institution, funded by our tax dollars, has trained thousands of coup leaders and human rights abusers. This coup has happened only seven short months ago. Thousands of people in Honduras have been resisting while the SOA/WHINSEC is continues to train Honduran officers.

The School of the Americas/WHINSEC has in the past and continues to train in low-intensity conflict; in counter-insurgency warfare against the poor, the laborers, the teachers, union-organizers. The School of the Americas/WHINSEC continues to send military officers from Latin America back to their homelands to use tactics and policies which result in war orphans, widows and Gold Star mothers.

I have always loved, been intrigued by the Spanish verb ”esperar”. It translates both “to hope” and “to wait”. In English, we use different verbs and distinguish between the meanings---sometimes, I think, because waiting and hoping are so separate in our impatient culture---not as intertwined.

Your Honor, I have worked hard to educate my elected officials on the urgency of closing the School of the Americas/WHINSEC, investigating its operations, and changing the foreign policies which underpin it. It is past time to send a message to our brothers and sisters in Latin America that we are ready for change, for right relation, for new beginnings. Sometimes waiting and hoping are not enough.


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