WASHINGTON - January 26 - Today the federal trial for the 27 human rights activists facing federal charges for civil disobedience begins in Columbus, Ga. The 27 were among 10,000 who gathered in November to call for a closure of the SOA, renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. The defendants peacefully crossed onto Ft. Benning property, site of the school. They are charged with trespass and face up to six months in federal prison and $5,000 in fines.
All 27 defendants are scheduled to appear before Judge G. Mallon Faircloth. Judge Faircloth is known for giving the maximum of six months to opponents of the SOA/WHISC. Nearly 170 people have served a total of over 75 years in prison, and approximately 17 people have served over 22 years of probation for engaging in nonviolent resistance in a broad-based campaign to close the school.
The SOA/WHISC is a combat training school for Latin American soldiers. Its graduates are consistently involved in human rights atrocities and coups, including the El Mozote Massacre of over 900 civilians and the failed coup of 2002 in Venezuela. In 1996 the Pentagon was forced to release manuals used at the school that advocated torture, extortion, and execution. In a statement about their action of conscience, several defendants state that "(Latin American military forces) do not exist primarily to defend one nation against another, but rather to protect an unjust and inequitable distribution of resources within each country against movements of social and political change."
Democratic candidate Wesley Clark continues to face critical questions from the public concerning his connection to the SOA, and his continued support of the unpopular school. The NY Post recently released an article calling Clark's stance on the SOA, "an issue that will likely alienate some Democratic primary voters."
SOA Watch founder Fr. Roy Bourgeois traveled to Venezuela to ask president Hugo Chavez to stop sending Venezuelan military personnel to the SOA/WHISC. Chavez, who continues to be popular amongst the overwhelmingly poor population of Venezuela, is taking Fr. Bourgeois request under series consideration.