|Minister sentenced for role in protest|
by Anna C. Irwin
A local minister was sentenced Friday in Columbus, Ga., to six months in a federal prison for his role in a protest against a "school for assassins'' at Fort Benning.
Erik Johnson of Maryville, a Presbyterian Church USA minister currently serving as interim pastor for the Church of the Savior in Knoxville, also was fined $1,000.
Johnson and several of his co-defendants are free on $250 bonds. He said Saturday he is awaiting notification from the U.S. Bureau of Prisons regarding where and when he will report to begin his sentence.
Johnson was enjoying a celebration with friends Saturday evening, marking his homecoming from Georgia where he and 36 co-defendants were in U.S. District Court before Magistrate Mallon Faircloth for pleas, trials and sentencing.
The week of court proceedings stems from arrests Nov. 18, 2001 during an annual protest against the former School of the Americas (SOA), now the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.
Johnson and the others arrested are members of SOA Watch, an organization determined to close the school they contend is a training center for Central and South American terrorists. The organization claims many graduates of the school are guilty of committing atrocities including abduction, torture and murder against their countrymen.
"The school is known by natives even in remote sections of Latin America as`escuela es de los assassinos,' school of the assassins,'' Johnson said.
"Ours is not a protest against Fort Benning or the U.S. Army but a protest against this specific school,'' the minister said.
SOA Watch has held a protest outside Fort Benning for each of the last 12 years. Johnson said the 2001 event was his third time to participate and his second arrest.
Following his November 2000 arrest, he was banned from Fort Benning for five years but was not fined or imprisoned. He said Saturday he is now banned from the military installation "for life'' in addition to his six-month sentence and fine.
Sixteen of the protesters received six-month prison sentences, 14 were sentenced to three months imprisonment, six were given probation and one was acquitted.
The federal magistrate allowed each of the protesters before the court to speak before he determined the sentence.
Johnson had his co-defendants and spectators in the courtroom stand and sing the hymn ``Peace Like a River'' as part of his pre-sentence message. He repeated his condemnation of the school at Fort Benning where Latin American soldiers, police officers and public officials are trained, calling it a "festering violation, like a cancer.''
"Our brothers and sisters in Latin America deserve peace and justice, not destabilization and terror as taught in this school,'' he said Saturday.
"I am amazed at the strength and courage of my co-defendants, especially the young people. They are beautiful people who offer great promise for peace. They have respect for the sacredness of life.
"I'm looking forward to the challenge of continuing our effort,'' Johnson said.
"Right now, I'm taking it one day at a time.''
5525 Illinois Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20011