Clare Hanrahan, CommomDreams
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. All defendants were found guilty and sentenced to prison or probation. 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, a violation of 18 US Code 1382, a misdemeanor trespass offense; 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.
This year?s group of defendants, between 19 and 81 years of age, join hundreds of others who have been prosecuted and convicted for similar acts of peaceful dissent at the military installation. Since 1990, 183 people have served a total of over 81 years in prison for engaging in nonviolent resistance against the School of the Americas. Scores of others have served months and years of probation and house arrest.
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. 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, his defense attorney argued, 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, Attorney 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, a founding member of Witness for Peace, testified, ?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?
Judge Faircloth asserted that ?the right to demonstrate before the front gate has been upheld by this court.? During the course of the trial 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.?
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.
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. She can be reached through her website: www.celticwordcraft.com For more information on the SOA/WHINSEC, the pending legislation to close the school, and to support the prisoners, contact: www.soaw.org.