Activist Retiree Faces Prison Sentence Print

Fillenwarth, 64, a mother of seven and grandmother of 17, faces up to six months in prison after trespassing onto Fort Benning in Georgia in November to protest the Army's Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, as well as alleged human rights abuses.

"I knew going in that (prison) was how it was going to be. I'm not going to try and get out of it," Fillenwarth said.

In November, she and a group of people found a hole in the fence behind an apartment building at the base, crawled through and walked down a hill onto the base.
Military police were there to greet her -- just the way she planned it.
"I was so happy I was finally doing it," she said.

Her group, School of the Americas Watch, holds a yearly protest and vigil every November in an effort to close the facility. Formerly known as the School of the Americas, the facility helped train Latin American soldiers.

Critics say the school counted among its 65,000 alumni some of Central America's most notorious despots, including Manuel Noriega, and criminals.

The school formally closed in 2000 under pressure from Congress and other groups, making way for the institute, which the military says trains Latin American soldiers in the United States and promotes international cooperation.
"There is not a single case anywhere to say anyone who learned anything at the school used what they learned to commit a crime," said Lee Rials, spokesman for the facility.

"This is probably the most open place I have ever worked," said Rials, adding that anyone can get permission to come on base, sit in on classes and talk to students and faculty.
Still, Fillenwarth's group thinks the government hasn't taken responsibility for its role in violence in Latin America.

The protests have become commonplace at the school-turned-institute, prompting officials to hold an open house when protesters are in town.
"The problem comes with those people who crawl under or go over the fence, trespassing for political purposes," Rials said.

Fillenwarth trespassed in 2000 and was banned from the base for five years. But since 2001, officials have been handing out strict prison sentences to curb trespassing.

In November, she went back, joining 15 others who were arrested by federal authorities during the annual protest. She was released on $1,000 bond and given a Jan. 29 court date.

Fillenwarth, who is married to a retired lawyer, says she became an activist relatively late in life. She was too busy raising children. After they got older and started down their own paths, she started reading about the school and eventually became an active protester.

Fillenwarth said she carefully considered what she was doing, deciding it was worth the likely six months behind bars. She knows she'll be homesick. "I hope my family visits me. I'm just going to get it over with."

In the end, she said, she doesn't regret her decision.
"I want to be proud of everything my country does," Fillenwarth said."To me, it's a big part of my faith. We need to care about the poor, even if they live in another country."

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