WASHINGTON - January 17 - Summertown resident Don Nelson traveled from his home to Memphis, Tennessee today to “self report” to federal prison. Nelson was arrested on November 21, 2005 as part of a nonviolent demonstration calling for the closure of the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas, based at Fort Benning, Georgia. For peacefully walking onto the Fort Benning military reservation, Nelson, a first time offender, was sentenced to three months in federal prison. The group “crossed the line” to protest current concerns about the school’s role in training Latin American militaries today and a legacy of torture and human rights abuses committed by graduates of the school.
“I have no regrets about my decision to participate in civil disobedience,” Nelson said before reporting to the Federal Correctional Institute in Memphis. “I’m confident that we will close this infamous school.”
The School of the Americas, now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (SOA/ WHINSEC), is a combat training facility for Latin American security personnel located at Fort Benning, Georgia. The school made headlines in 1996 when the Pentagon released training manuals used there that advocated torture, extortion and execution. Despite this shocking admission and hundreds of documented human rights abuses connected to soldiers trained at the school, no independent investigation into the training facility has ever taken place.
More than 19,000 people came together in November to call for the closure of the school and to protest the Bush Administration’s opposition to banning torture techniques. Protestors at the vigil called attention to pictures of abuse at the hands U.S. personnel and reports about secret CIA detention facilities as part of a broader legacy of US support for torture and human rights abuses. Hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans have been tortured, raped, assassinated, “disappeared”, massacred and forced into refuge by graduates of the SOA/ WHINSEC.
The annual Vigil to close the SOA/ WHINSEC has grown from a dozen people in November of 1990 to this year’s record numbers. Protests against the SOA/WHINSEC began 16 years ago, and since then 180 people have served prison sentences. Thirty-four individuals arrested with Nelson and also facing possible prison sentences are scheduled to begin trials on Monday, January 30.
In 2005 Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) introduced HR 1217, a bill to suspend operations at the SOA/ WHINSEC and to investigate the development and use of the “torture manuals.” The bill currently has 123 bipartisan co-sponsors, and a Congressional vote is expected as early as May of this year.
Despite his draconian sentence, Nelson remains optimistic. “I am more committed than ever to seeing the US government take a stand for human rights by closing the School of the Americas once and for all,” he stated yesterday.