Thirty-five people accused of staging an illegal demonstration at the Supreme Court went on trial today and used the proceedings as another opportunity to protest conditions at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Many of the 22 men and 13 women dressed themselves in orange prison jumpsuits to show solidarity with Guantanamo detainees. They were arrested Jan. 11 for illegally protesting on the grounds of the Supreme Court, a misdemeanor that carries up to 60 days in jail.
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The demonstration came on the sixth anniversary of the opening of the detention facility set up to house suspected terrorists. Today, the defendants continued to make political statements about the treatment of detainees as their trial began in D.C. Superior Court.
As a clerk for Judge Wendell P. Gardner Jr. took attendance, each defendant stood up, identified himself or herself and then spoke a name of someone described as a Guantanamo detainee, including some who died at the prison. The move was an act of symbolism meant to give the Guantanamo detainees their first voice in court.
Mathew Daloisio, 31, of New York said he was speaking on behalf of Yasser al-Zahrani, who died in 2006 in what the Defense Department called a coordinated suicide with two other detainees. As Daloisio spoke, several co-defendants said, "God forgive us," one of the only outbursts to take place in the otherwise quiet courtroom.
Because the charges are misdemeanors punishable by less than six months in jail, the case is being heard by a judge and not a jury. In opening statements, prosecutors told the judge that the case was not about freedom of speech but about disobeying police orders regarding assembly. Assistant U.S. Attorney Magdalena Acevedo said the group left the sidewalk, where demonstrations are legal and, despite warnings, ventured to the plaza of the Supreme Court, where such activities are barred by law.
"If they stayed in the permissible area, they could have spoken as much as they wanted to," she said.
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About 150 people gathered on the sidewalk during the demonstration, but only about 35 or so went to the plaza. They carried signs that said "Shut Down Guantanamo" and then knelt on the steps of the Supreme Court.
The protesters are a part of a group called Witness Against Torture that has held demonstrations in various cities across the country including the District, New York and Chicago. They range in age from their 20s to their 70s. The group's leaders said the defendants include a hog farmer from Grinnell, Iowa, a social worker from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and a legal secretary from Baltimore.
In court today, the defendants filled the box normally reserved for the jury and the left side of the courtroom. Their supporters filled the other side of the room, and the crowd was so large that some had to wait in the hallway. Many supporters wore T-shirts that said "Stop Torture," "Stop the War" and "Granny Peace Brigade."
The demonstrators are representing themselves at trial, with help from lawyer Mark Goldstone, a First Amendment specialist who is acting as an adviser.
During his opening statement to the court, Daloisio -- who acted as a spokesman for the majority of the group -- said the protesters would remain silent throughout the trial.
"We will remain silent and not exercise our rights when our country denies the rights to others," Daloisio said. "Our silence in this trial is in support of the people who have been deemed non-persons."
Prior to the trial, the group -- dressed in the orange jumpsuits and black hoods -- marched from the Supreme Court to D.C. Superior Court, where they held a rally outside the courthouse. The trial is expected to last two to three days.
© 2008 Washington Post