US federal magistrate G. Mallon Faircloth in Columbus, Ga., surprised observers on Jan. 25 by sentencing three activists to six-month prison terms for trespassing on the US Army’s Fort Benning base; the maximum sentence for the offense. Nancy Gwin of Syracuse, NY, Father Louie Vitale of Oakland, Calif., and Ken Hayes of Austin, Tex., were arrested on Nov. 22 as part of an annual protest outside the base against the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), formerly the US Army School of the Americas (SOA), which has trained many of the hemisphere’s worst human rights violators. A fourth defendant, Michael Walli of Washington, DC, refused to appear for the trial, and Judge Faircloth issued a warrant for his arrest. Walli had told the court during his November arraignment that he would not pay any bail and that he would not voluntarily return for the trial. “I walk out and it’s goodbye,” he told the judge.
The sentences were much stiffer than the two-month prison terms Judge Faircloth handed down to five activists in 2009 for the same offense. “It’s the harshest we’ve seen for a very long time,” said Eric LeCompte, event coordinator with SOA Watch, which coordinates the annual protests. “I mean, I’m stunned by the sentences.” (SOA Watch press release, Jan. 25; Columbus Ledger Enquirer, Jan. 25) This was the second offense at the base for at least one of the defendants: Father Vitale served a three-month sentence in 2002 for an earlier protest. (Las Vegas Review-Journal, April 12)
From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Jan. 31
See our last post on WHINSEC/SOA.