A federal magistrate in Georgia sentenced eleven people to prison for up to six months last week for crossing the line onto a military base in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience last fall.
In protest against the School of the Americas–a US-run training facility for Latin American soldiers that has earned a reputation for teaching torture, coercion and execution tactics–the eleven demonstrators entered the grounds of Fort Benning on November 21, in some cases by scaling a barbed-wire fence at the main gate. The sentences are not unlike those doled out to past SOA protesters, but they are, viewed from a broader perspective, strikingly harsh and excessive, especially in a year in which the use of torture has generated headlines.
“The severity of the sentences is so far out of proportion to the actions taken,” said William Quigley, a lawyer with the SOA Watch legal collective and a professor at the Loyola New Orleans School of Law. Referring to one particular case that resulted in a six-month prison sentence, he added, “If this same act happened in 99 percent of the federal districts throughout the United States, the sentence would have been a small fine or some community service.”
Indeed, as Quigley argued in court on behalf of several SOA protesters, similar actions in other regions of the country have led to far less extreme sentences. In cases stemming from nonviolent demonstrations at military bases from Puerto Rico to California, sentences have included $10 fines, six months of unsupervised probation, 100 hours of community service and thirty days in prison. But the sentences handed down in the cases of the SOA protesters of 2004, in keeping with a trend that dates back several years, were markedly different than those others. In all, two protesters received six months in prison, two others four months and seven more three months; most of those eleven also wound up with fines of $500. (Three additional protesters, two of whom were minors, received probation or deferred sentences.)
Roy Bourgeois, the Catholic priest who founded SOA Watch in 1990 and has spent a combined four years in prison for acts of nonviolent civil disobedience, called the harshness of the sentences “a grave injustice.” But he added that the steep prison terms would not, by any means, silence the voices of those who took a stand against the SOA–which was renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in 2001. “When they send us to prison, they cannot silence us,” he said. “We have discovered, as so many people before us who have inspired us discovered, that the truth cannot be silenced.”