A 84-year-old nun and two peace activists who engaged in a non-violent demonstration at nuclear weapons production facility in Tennessee because "our very humanity rejects the designs of nuclearism, empire and war" were sentenced Tuesday to several years behind bars while critics of the verdict say the true crime of nuclear weapons proliferation remains unpunished.
U.S. District Judge Amul Thapar sentenced 84-year-old Sister Megan Rice, a Catholic nun, to 35 months in prison and three years probation. Thapar sentenced 58-year-old Greg Boertje-Obed, an Army veteran who lives at a Catholic Worker House in Minnesota, and Michael Walli, a 64-year-old Vietnam veteran who lives at the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker house in Washington DC, to five years in prison and three years probation as well.
The trio's crime: a ploughshares action at the Y‑12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The New York Times has reported that the "plant holds the nation’s main supply of highly enriched uranium, enough for thousands of nuclear weapons."
While officials called the Oak Ridge, Tenn. facility the "Fort Knox of uranium" in July 2012 peace activists Rice, Boertje-Obed and Walli were able to hike two hours in to the Y-12 grounds, cut through multiple fences, hang peace banners and spray-paint peace slogans, pour blood, pray, sing and pound the ground. It took two hours for the three to be arrested.
The trio call themselves the Transform Now Plowshares, a reference to the Bible's Isaiah 2:4— "They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."
At the Oak Ridge facility, they left messages including "Woe to the empire of blood; The fruit of justice is peace; Work for peace not for war."
Previously explaining why they did the action, Rice said that "we had to [do it]— we were doing it because we had to reveal the truth of the criminality which is there, that’s our obligation."
"The truth will heal us and heal our planet, heal our diseases, which result from the disharmony of our planet caused by the worst weapons in the history of mankind, which should not exist. For this we give our lives — for the truth about the terrible existence of these weapons," she added.
Initially accused of a misdemeanor, their charges were upped to a felony.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeff Theodore said Tuesday that the activists have a history of such actions, saying, "They just keep doing it ... They are incorrigible," adding, "There has to be a heavy toll."
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The three were convicted of sabotage last May, and in January when their sentencing hearing began, they were ordered to pay $53,000 in restitution, but snow forced that hearing to be suspended until today.
The three have already served over 9 months.
Supporters of the anti-nuclear activists who were inside the courtroom told Common Dreams that while there was some relief that the sentences weren't as long as federal limits could have made them, the true crime was left unpunished.
John LaForge of the Wisconsin-based environmental and peace group NukeWatch told Common Dreams that Judge Thapar gets to "give the impression that he's being lenient when in fact the sentences are harsh for what actually happened."
Further, he said the Thapar "erroneously said multiple times that the the defendants didn't show respect for the law." But the law forbids the production of weapons of mass destruction, Forge said, so with his ruling the judge "is protecting outlawed weapons."
This is a point echoed by Paul Magno, a spokesperson for Transform Now Ploughshares, who told Common Dreams that while the group was "a little bit gratified" to see that the sentences that came down were not as long as they could have been, "the wrong people got prosecuted, convicted and sent to jail."
What wasn't addressed, he continued, was the "grotesque" violation of nuclear weapons which threaten all of humanity.
Ellen Barfield, another spokesperson from Transform Now Ploughshares, stressed this point as well, telling Common Dreams that "the U.S., as well as other nations, agreed to as of the 1970s to disarm." And not only are they not taking weapons apart, they "are now turning around and creating new, more efficient ones," Barfield said.
"The crime of Y 12 continues," Magno added, and said that his group's resistance will continue as well.
While these types of actions are months or years in the making, Barfield said, "I can just about guarantee....there will be other ploughshares actions."