On Monday, January 25, 2010, four human rights advocates are scheduled to begin federal trials for carrying the protest against the School of the Americas onto the Fort Benning military base in Georgia. This school, re-named the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, is a controversial U.S. Army training school for Latin American soldiers. Each defendant faces up to six months in prison and a $5,000 fine for this act of nonviolent civil disobedience.
The four were among the thousands who gathered on November 19-21, 2009 outside the gates of Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia to demand a change in U.S.-Latin America foreign policy and the closure of the School of the Americas (SOA/WHINSEC). The group peacefully crossed onto Ft. Benning, site of the school, while thousands stood vigil at the gates of Fort Benning in memory of those killed by graduates of the institution.
The "SOA 4" are facing up to 6 months in prison and a $5,000 fine. They are:
- Nancy Gwin, a long-time activist from Syracuse, New York
- Father Louie Vitale, an Air Force veteran and Franciscan Priest from Oakland, California
- Michael Walli, a member of the Catholic Worker movement from Washington, DC
- Ken Hayes, a representative on the SOA Watch Grassroots Council from Austin, Texas
Those arrested at the demonstration crossed the line to protest the school's lack of transparency, its historical ties to brutal dictatorships throughout Latin America and the ever-growing number of human rights abuses and crimes committed by its graduates
The SOA/WHINSEC made headlines in 1996 when the Pentagon released training manuals used at the school that advocated torture, extortion and execution. The school was in the news again last year, when its graduates led a military coup to overthrow of the democratically elected government of Honduras in June 2009.
The defendants are scheduled to begin trial at the Federal Court in Columbus, Georgia at 9am on Monday before Judge G. Mallon Faircloth, known for handing down stiff sentences to opponents of the SOA/ WHINSEC. Since protests against the SOA/WHINSEC began 19 years ago, 243 people have served sentences of up to two years for nonviolent civil disobedience.
SOA Watch is a nonviolent grassroots movement that works through creative protest and resistance, legislative and media work to stand in solidarity with the people of Latin America, to close the SOA/WHINSEC and to change oppressive U.S. foreign policy that institutions like the SOA represent. We are grateful to our sisters and brothers throughout Latin America and the the Caribbean for their inspiration and the invitation to join them in their struggle for economic and social justice.