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Clare Hanrahan, "School of Assassins Trials Bring New Charge"

Clare Hanrahan writes:

"The Line Has Crossed Us All:
'Aiding and Abetting' Conviction Brings a Six-Month Prison Sentence at School of the Americas Trials"
Clare Hanrahan

Thirty four peaceful protesters arrested during the November 20, 2005, vigil at the gates of Fort Benning, Georgia, faced trial before Federal Magistrate G. Mallon Faircloth on January 30 and 31st in Columbus, Georgia. All defendants were found guilty and face prison or probation.Brevard, North Carolina, resident Linda Mashburn, a nurse and human rights activist, told the judge in her sentencing statement, “Prison for three or six months is not such a terrible ordeal to face if my action will publicize the fact that the U.S. has been running the largest training school for terrorism in the world for the last 50 plus years.” Mashburn was sentenced to three months imprisonment.

This year, prosecutors charged one activist with “Aiding and Abetting.” According to the U.S. Criminal Code, “Whoever aids, abets, counsels, commands, induces or procures the commission of an offense, is punishable as a principal.”

“It seems possible that others in our movement could receive similar charges,” SOA Watch Events and Outreach Coordinator Eric LeCompte commented after the convictions. “Now the government knows they can use this charge against us and the judge will give the maximum prison sentence. We sensed for some time that the government has attempted to piece together a Conspiracy case against SOA Watch, but the Aiding and Abetting charge doesn't seem to carry the burden of proof that a
Conspiracy charge would carry.”

According to the law, “Mere encouragement or assistance is sufficient participation in the criminal act” for a defendant to be prosecuted for aiding and abetting.

Each November, human rights activists from throughout the United States assemble at the gates of Fort Benning to call for closure of the U.S. Army School of the Americas, known officially as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Demands include closing the Institute, an investigation into the human rights abuses traced to graduates, and a change in U.S. foreign policy in Central and South America.

In past years, many thousands have crossed onto the Fort Benning Military Reservation to demonstrate civil resistance to the notorious counter-insurgency school harbored inside. Nineteen thousand gathered for the November 18-20, 2005, vigil—the largest in the 16-year campaign of the School of the Americas Watch organization.

According to a report by the SOA Watch Legal Collective, forty-one people were arrested in connection with the vigil. Thirty seven faced Federal charges. Of those thirty seven, thirty four were charged with crossing onto the base, two were charged with damaging the fence, and one person was charged with assisting others in line crossing. Three were arrested at the Sunday evening solidarity vigil at the Muscogee county jail.

One person, Ed Lewinson, 73, a retired professor, crossed onto the base for a third time, according to the Legal Collective. “Again this year, Mr. Lewinson was not charged, probably because the government fears the bad publicity associated with prosecuting a person who is blind.”

Defendants, their families and supporters, as well as numerous formerly imprisoned SOA resisters, arrived in Columbus several days prior to the January trials to provide mutual support and to consult with a team of pro bono attorneys and legal advisors, including Loyola University Law Professor Bill Quigley, who arrived from Haiti the night before the trials after working with the Institute of Justice and Democracy to win the release of Haitian political prisoner Father Gerard Jean-Juste, arrested for “incendiary sermons,” and “public clamor,” by the Haitian coup government.

On the first day of the SOA trials, defendants and supporters walked silently from the hotel to the U.S. Federal Courthouse in a several blocks long show of solidarity. Supporters, in turn, filled the 80 or so seats available on the long oak benches of the narrow courtroom for two days of trials held in the same building where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had appeared during the civil rights years to appeal for the right to march through Georgia.

We learned the sad news of the death of Mrs. Coretta Scott King from the massive, flat-screen television in the Howard Johnson hotel before the second day of trials as we sat among tables of soldiers from nearby Fort Benning to share the coffee and grits, cereal and juice from the hotel breakfast bar.

The U.S. Courthouse in Columbus, Georgia, a 1930's era, three-story building just blocks from the Chattahoochee River, again became both a forum for truth tellers and an instrument for repression of political dissent as one defendant after the other was found guilty and offered the opportunity to address the court prior to sentencing.

“If the voices of this courtroom were heard throughout this country,” Franciscan Friar Jerome Zawada, 68, of Cedar Lake, Indiana, told the judge, “the SOA/WHINSEC would be shut down tomorrow.” Zawada, who completed a six months sentence for a 2002 conviction, was sentenced to another six months prison time, with credit for the 63 days he had already served in the Muscogee County Jail.

This year’s group of defendants, between 19 and 81 years of age, include a film maker and a janitor, two Franciscan Friars, several members of Witness for Peace and Christian Peacemaker Team delegations, a Quaker, a nurse, and a nun, a Georgetown University student who was suspended by university officials for his act of civil dissent, several Catholic Workers who share their lives in service among the poor, a single mother of a teenage daughter, a newspaper reporter who stepped away from a twenty-five year career to participate in the civil resistance protest, a member of Veterans for Peace, a war tax resister, and a mother of 14 who refused bail following her November arrest and was brought before the judge directly from the Muscogee County Jail after 72 difficult days of incarceration.

All but one of the defendants had engaged in civil resistance by crossing over or under a perimeter fence into the immediate custody of military authorities. Each had planned and prepared for the nonviolent crossing, and were charged with violation of 18 US Code 1382, a misdemeanor trespass offense.

They joined 231 others who have been prosecuted and convicted for similar acts of peaceful dissent at the military installation. Since 1990, these human rights activists have spent over 81 years of prison time in 199 prison sentences served by 181 different individuals. Forty-seven different individuals have served 50 years of probation and three have been sentenced to home confinement, according to statistics provided by the SOA Watch organization.

The defendants were prosecuted by a team led by a military JAG officer, dressed in civilian clothes. She was acting as a civilian attorney, according to the Judge, who addressed her as Captain. Columbus, Georgia, police officers also testified during the trials and were responsible for arresting several individuals on the city-side of the fence and turning them over to military authorities, further blurring the distinctions between civilian and military authority.

Kenneth Crowley, 64, of Washington, DC, the Delegations Coordinator for Witness for Peace, faced prosecution on the charge of “Aiding and Abetting.” This is the first time this charge has been leveled against a participant in the SOA Watch-sponsored gathering. Crowley, who served a six month prison sentence for crossing the line in 2002, testified that he responded to a request from 66 year old defendant Gail Phares, to lift the fence that had fallen on her back as she attempted to crawl under it onto Fort Benning property. Prosecutors presented a surveillance video tape of the action taken by Columbus police that allegedly showed three others following Phares under the fence as Crowley held it up.

“I couldn’t have just let it drop on their backs,” Crowley told the Judge.

Unlike the other defendants, who received a verbal warning prior to crossing, Crowley had not been warned that holding the fence could result in his arrest, and he had not come to Fort Benning with an intention to participate in civil disobedience.

“Ignorance of law is not a legal defense,” the prosecutor argued, and “not expecting to be arrested is no legal defense. … if the government proves he knowingly assisted others in violation of the law, the defendant is equally culpable.”

Arguing for the defense, Bill Quigley said, “If he is guilty of anything, he is guilty of being a gentleman and trying to keep a fence from hurting someone.”

“This is the first time in my 45 years judicial career where chivalry has been used as a defense,” Judge Faircloth quipped prior to issuing a guilty verdict. “There is always a place for politeness and chivalry in this world; nonetheless, I don’t buy the chivalry defense. I consider this a grievous offense.” He sentenced Crowley to six months imprisonment with a $1,000 fine.

Gail Phares of Raleigh, North Carolina, speaking in a press conference before the trial said, "In my 40 years of experience in Latin America, I've witnessed a number of patterns repeated over and over which trace death, torture and suffering back to troops trained in counter-insurgency warfare by the U.S. military, many of whom were trained at the School of the Americas."

Taking the stand at her trial, Phares, a founding member of Witness for Peace, testified, “I’m so tired of seeing this pattern. …We are training an Army allied with paramilitary death squads to focus on the civilian population. In Colombia, three million people have been displaced. This is the worst humanitarian crisis in this hemisphere. Thousands are being massacred and tortured and assassinated. …Is it a crime to call attention to a crime, to call attention to genocide?”

Turning to face Judge Faircloth Phares said, “On December 2, 1980, one of my closest friends, Sister Maura Clark, was raped and murdered by graduates of the SOA.” In tears, she continued, “Maura Clark was my friend. … When will we U.S. citizens and people of faith rise up and demand that our government stop this pattern?”

During the course of the trial, Judge Faircloth reminded those assembled that “the right to demonstrate before the front gate has been upheld by this court.” He attempted to excuse his judgments and harsh sentencing by declaring, “It’s not in my hands. I have to deal with the practical application of 18 USC 1382.”

Robert Call, 72, a former priest and an “off-off Broadway actor,” from Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey, told the Judge, “It is right, quite civilly, to disobey a ‘No Trespassing’ sign and commit a Federal misdemeanor in order to send a message of disapproval. When I crawled under the Fort Benning fence, my demeanor was somewhat amiss. I admit it. But it was right to do it.”

Prior to receiving a sentence of three months, Call told the Judge, “I went to Guatemala as a Witness for Peace and I met a group of Mayan women who had watched uniformed soldiers shoot their husbands dead. I went to Mexico and met people driven out of Guatemala and still afraid to go back. When Rios Montt, an alumnus of the School of the Americas, was President of Guatemala, he saw to the destruction of over six hundred Indian villages, killing hundreds of thousands and driving two hundred thousand to refuge in Mexico.”

Writer David A. Sylvester, 54, of Oakland, California, characterizes the SOA as “one of the most horrific examples of how this society lives out a lie, violating its members’ personal and social integrity.”

Sylvester took a voluntary lay off from his work as a newspaper reporter to participate in the November action at the gates. “It freed me from restraints of alleged neutrality,” he said. “We’re in moral crises in this country. There comes a time when one must join the fight.”

Before being sentenced to three months prison and a $500 fine, Sylvester told the judge, “When I first heard about Abu Ghraib and saw the photos, at that moment the line crossed me. I had already been violated by the time I got to Fort Benning.”

On January 23, 2006, a week before the SOA trials, Chief Warrant Officer Lewis Welshofer Jr, was spared a prison sentence by a six-member military panel at Fort Carson, Colorado, for torturing to death Iraqi Major General Abed Hamed Mowhoush by covering his head with a sleeping bag, binding him with electric cord, and sitting on his chest until he died.

“By crossing the line to call for the closure of the SOA/WHINSEC,” according to the SOA Watch Legal Collective, the defendants “were complying with the highest laws, international laws and laws of conscience. In their actions they were demanding that our country abide by the Convention Against Torture, which was ratified by the U.S. in 1994. It states that ‘no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture,’ and that orders from superiors ‘may not be invoked as a justification of torture.’"

Clare Hanrahan served six months at Alderson Federal Prison Camp as an SOA prisoner. She is a free-lance writer and author of Jailed for Justice: A Woman’s Guide to Federal Prison Camp, and Conscience & Consequene: A Prison Memoir. She can be reached through her website: www.celticwordcraft.com

Jim McGovern (D-MA) reintroduced legislation in the 109th Congress to suspend operations at the School of the Americas/ WHINSEC. HR 1217, "The Latin America Military Training Review Act of 2005," has 124 bi-partisan co-sponsors.

For more information on the SOA/WHINSEC and to support the prisoners, contact: www.soaw.org