Sister Lil Mattingly, a Louisville native and Roman Catholic nun, says she has no regrets about taking part in a protest at a military school last year, even though it landed her in federal prison for six months.
Mattingly was set free in September after serving her time at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Conn.
Sister Lil Mattingly plans to return to the annual protest next month at the military school, though she doesn't plan to trespass again. (By Bill Luster, The Courier-Journal)
Mattingly -- who grew up in Louisville and worked in a Hispanic ministry in Shelbyville, Ky., in the late 1990s -- was arrested last November while protesting at Fort Benning, Ga.
She was taking part in an annual protest against a school that trains Latin American officers. The protesters allege the school trains the officers in torture and other techniques that violate human rights. The school denies the allegations.
Most of the thousands of protesters at the school each year stay on public streets, but some are arrested for trespassing on the base.
When Mattingly was first arrested in 2000, she said, she received a letter ordering her never to set foot on the base again. Last year, she was among 15 people arrested, and because of her prior record, her six-month sentence was one of the stiffest doled out.
Mattingly, a member of the Maryknoll religious order, is no stranger to acts of civil disobedience. Shortly before the 2003 Iraq war, she defied U.S. sanctions by visiting that country.
Mattingly called such acts "divine obedience, because we feel we are following the divine law of our conscience."
"I definitely consider it worth being able to witness to the truth that I believe that our U.S. foreign policy is so wrong," she said in a recent interview while visiting family in Louisville.
The school she was protesting -- originally called the School of the Americas -- is now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.
A Pentagon review released in 1996 found that the school used training manuals that advocated executions, torture, blackmail and other forms of coercion against insurgents.
Lee Rials, public affairs officer for the institute, said its curriculum includes information about human rights and democracy, and he said the training manuals in question "never really were part of the curriculum."
"There's not a single example of anyone who took the course there who later used that information to commit a crime," he said.
Some of Latin America's notorious human-rights abusers studied at the school, according to human-rights organizations and a Washington Post report.
But Rials said the school's influence on them was often minimal, citing one notorious death squad leader whose only course at the school was in radio communications.
Mattingly, however, said the connections are broader than that.
In the 1970s, she lived in Bolivia, which she said was ruled by a former student of the school who led a bloody regime.
She lived in Nicaragua during the 1980s, and she said that the U.S.-backed contra rebels "terrorized" the country, then ruled by the Soviet-backed Sandinista government. She was also shocked to learn that Salvadoran death squads murdered two of her fellow Maryknoll nuns in 1980.
School of the Americas Watch, which organizes protests at the school, says on its Web site that some contras and Salvadoran death-squad members had ties to the school.
Mattingly plans to go to the annual protest next month, though she doesn't plan to trespass again. "Our goal is to close the school," she said.
Mattingly said she served her sentence at a minimum-security prison where conditions were Spartan. She said she was able to work in the prison greenhouse, which she enjoyed, though she and other prisoners were often required to work outside during the hottest hours of the day.
Mattingly is now living at her order's mother house in Maryknoll, N.Y., pending a future assignment from her order.
Copyright 2005 The Courier-Journal.