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UC-Berkeley-area activist priest prepares for longest incarceration PDF Print E-mail
By Annthea Whittaker, Daily Californian

Berkeley, Calif. - More than 600 people filled the pews at a Berkeley, Calif., church Saturday night to hear Rev. Bill O'Donnell before he serves prison time for a civil disobedience act in protest of U.S.-trained combatants.

O'Donnell, the former pastor of St. Joseph the Worker Church in Berkeley, will serve six months -- his longest sentence in his life -- for trespassing on the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in Fort Benning, Ga., in November 2001. He has faced during his lifetime some 255 charges stemming from civil disobedience.

O'Donnell alleged the institute trained militant combatants for use in Central American countries.

During what may be his last public appearance before he goes to prison, the 72-year-old priest joked about his trial.

"I told (the judge) he was a pimp for the Pentagon," O'Donnell said, drawing laughter from the crowd and surprising those who came to hear him talk about Central American torture tactics.

After listening to his Salvadoran and Guatemalan parishioners' stories of torture endured at the hands of U.S.-trained combatants in 1980, he decided to protest the institute he believed was in part responsible for the torture.

"Bill O'Donnell is my hero. My chief regret about Bill going to prison is that I can't share the cell with him," wrote actor Martin Sheen in a letter of support for Saturday night's presentation.

Though the date has not yet been set when O'Donnell will begin his sentence, he said he is fearless at the prospect.

"They may have my body, and I will have to do what they tell me, but my spirit is free," he said.

O'Donnell said his sentence is an opportunity to reach another audience.

"I will get to communicate my story to the inmates and the guards," O'Donnell said.

Last year, more than 11,000 people gathered at the WHISC, formerly called the School of the Americas, to protest the alleged training programs.

Following the November 2001 protest, 43 people were charged and 37 people were tried for trespassing. Six charges were dropped, leaving 37 people who were tried. At the trial, one person was acquitted and 36 were found guilty, with sentences ranging from three months to six months imprisonment.

O'Donnell plans to continue his protest of the institute when he gets out of prison.

"I can't wait to get back to Fort Benning," O'Donnell said.

Members of Congress also recently launched an attack on the alleged training camp.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, sponsored Bill 1810, which proposes to close the institute. The legislation has 111 cosponsors.

Carlos Muricio, a Salvadoran torture victim who recently won a $ 56 million lawsuit against his attackers with the help of Boalt Hall School of Law students, attended the event.

Activists who faced trial for the Fort Benning protest, such as Louie Vitale, pastor of St. Boniface Church, and Leonie Reinbold, also attended the speech.

(C) 2002 Daily Californian via U-WIRE

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