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Anti-Torture Activists Acquittal a Victory for 'Free Speech'

D.C. judge acquits 27 Guantanamo protesters - including 4 from Pioneer Valley - of charges from Capitol Hill protest

by Patrick Johnson

WASHINGTON - Some two dozen anti-torture activists — including four from Western Massachusetts — were acquitted Monday in Washington D.C. Superior Court on charges of unlawful assembly following their arrests in January during a political demonstration on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.

Judge Russell Canan granted a motion for judgment of acquittal, dropping charges against all 27 defendants after federal prosecutors presented their case. The trial had been expected by some to last up to a week.

Witness Against Torture, Fast for Justice in front of the Whitehouse. Jan 2010. (Flickr Photo by Jerica Arents) Most of the activists sat in the courtroom wearing black shirts during the bench trial.

The group was arrested while protesting the failure of the Obama Administration to follow through on its promise from a year earlier to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. They were arrested after refusing a police order to disperse.

Jeremy Varon, spokesman for the group Witness Against Torture, said “This is a victory for free speech.”

Among the 27 defendants were Patricia “Paki” Wieland of Northampton, Elizabeth Adams of Leverett, Sherrill Hogen of Conway and Ellen Graves of West Springfield.

Wieland, contacted by cell phone outside the court house, called the ruling a major victory because it upheld the First Amendment, namely the protections for freedom of speech and freedom of peaceful assembly.

“We did exactly what the First Amendment tells us to do,” she said. “We actually exercised the First Amendment and won.”

Graves praised the ruling, saying “what it said was we had a right to protest in Washington.”

Hogen said the ruling amounts to a small victory in part of a larger campaign that continues.

The group will continue to speak out as long as Guantanamo is still open as a detention facility, as are other facilities around the world, and some detainees from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are still being held without indefinitely without a trial.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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