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Vigil Raises 'Voices Against Terror'

by Jenna Johnston

WASHINGTON - The mock prison cell, the barking dog belonging to another protester, people asking names and ages.

Sister Dianna Ortiz said yesterday that the sights and sounds during a 24-hour vigil and protest at Lafayette Square against torture took her "back to that place" and time -- Guatemala in 1989, when the American nun, then 29, taught Mayan children about human rights.

It took her back to the day she was blindfolded and taken to a prison for reasons she still doesn't know. To an interrogation, cigarettes burned on her breasts, being forced to dance naked, raped repeatedly. Back to hell.

Ortiz escaped within a day as her captors transported her to another prison. But each year on June 23, the United Nations' International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, Ortiz is reminded of her ordeal as she leads a vigil in front of the White House.

In 1996, Ortiz founded the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International, which brings together survivors and advocates for human rights issues, and she began to travel across the country to tell her story. Participants at this weekend's vigil, the coalition's 10th, included 75 survivors from some of the 150 countries the organization cites for practicing and condoning torture.

"We're not just telling it -- we're reliving it," Ortiz said. "We feel like we are back in our cell."

This year, survivors and activists had a specific mission: demanding the repeal of the Military Commissions Act, which President Bush signed in October. Coalition members say they think the act is unconstitutional, is a severe violation of human rights and essentially legalizes acts of torture, she said.

The act establishes procedures for conducting military investigations and hearings for suspected terrorists and combatants. One of the activists, Ray McGovern, who was a CIA analyst for 27 years, said the act ignores prisoner rights established by the Geneva Conventions and the 1996 U.S. War Crimes Act.

"The act needs to be banned for practical and moral reasons," McGovern told yesterday's crowd. An opponent of the Iraq war, he accused then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in May 2006 of lying about prewar intelligence during the question-and-answer session of a speech in Atlanta.

Some of the vigil participants demonstrated their opposition to what they call the "torture law" through civil disobedience. They stood in front of the White House with protest signs until U.S. Park Police arrested them on charges of violating the terms of their Lafayette Square permit.

Just after noon yesterday, about 100 participants formed a line behind a banner announcing their "voices against terror." Silently, they carried crosses inscribed with the names of the 150 countries -- including the United States -- that they believe commit acts of terrorism.

They proceeded from the shady park, crossed Pennsylvania Avenue and stood on the sidewalk in front of the White House. Sixteen stood silently and refused to leave when asked to by a Park Police officer. Other officers arrived on horses and bicycles and put up yellow police tape as sirens sounded. One officer announced that anyone who did not leave would be arrested. Tourists snapped photos, and other participants watched from the park.

Police gave two more warnings, and the vigil participants began to sing: "We are singing, singing for our world."

As an officer approached the first person to be arrested, protesters added to the song: "We are peaceful, loving people. We are singing, singing for our world." The woman placed her possessions in a plastic bag, and her hands were bound with plastic cuffs. "We are justice-seeking people," the protesters sang.

The 16 arrested people were led to a police van as other protesters applauded, shouted "Thank you" and beat on drums. Organizers said that those arrested were volunteers and that none was a torture survivor. They were charged with failure to obey a lawful order and released after about three hours.

After the arrests, the yellow tape was removed and tourists reclaimed their photo spots in view of the White House.

Ortiz said that the protest and vigil were significant and that her goal is to raise public awareness.

"When I first came back, very few people were speaking out," Ortiz said. The torture survivors in this country "believe that we don't have the right to be silent. We have the moral responsibility to speak the truth."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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