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Witness Against Torture: Peace Activists Face Trial

The recent Catholic priest sex scandal -- and the Papal spokesman’s offensive comparison of the public’s outcry at the Church to, of all things, anti-Semitic persecution during the Holocaust -- have understandably added to secular progressives’ growing skepticism, if not outright disdain, for organized religion. However, the Catholic establishment’s flagrant abuse of power should not eclipse the Catholic vanguard’s long and impressive history of social justice activism. These Catholic peace activists view faith as a personal commitment with public implications, and they are continuing a tradition that harks back to Dorothy Day’s “houses of hospitality”, which served urban America’s most destitute residents, and the Berrigan Brothers' "ultra resistance" to the Vietnam War, which involved raiding draft boards and burning government records with homemade Napalm.

The latest chapter in this dramatic yet underreported tradition of radical Catholic social justice activism involves a group of twenty-seven peace advocates who are now facing trial for protesting the Obama Administration’s abysmal failure to close the high-security prison at Guantánamo Bay, grant detained suspects their right to habeas corpus, and prosecute the Bush Administration architects of torture.

In 2005, a handful of Catholic peace activists spearheaded “Witness Against Torture”. Frida Berrigan, the daughter of Phil Berrigan, recently told me why she helped create the organization:

“It began with a question, ‘How could we act in such a way that resisted the War on Terror?’ We weren’t thinking about consequences or what would happen to us. We decided that Jesus’ questions were simple: Did you visit me when I was prison? Did you feed when I was hungry? Did you clothe me when I was naked? . . . We came out of the Catholic Worker experience of doing the draft board raids and creative actions in the 1960s. It happens that, at this moment, the issue is torture.”

In the winter of 2005, Frida and 24 American members of Witness Against Torture — mostly Catholic Workers — flaunted the travel ban against Cuba and voyaged to the U.S. Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay. Camped outside the detention facility, the peace activists fasted every Friday in solidarity with the hunger strikers and explained to the media, “the definition of what it means to be Catholic is acts of mercy.” The activists were unsuccessful in entering, let alone closing down, the prison at Guantánamo Bay. However, one of the prisoners' lawyers later confirmed the detainees knew about the anti-torture vigil and, for the first time since their arrests, were hopeful that regular American citizens cared about the ideals their nation purported, including the right to a fair trial and the right not to be subjected to cruel punishment. Out of the 25 activists, 10 received notices from Office of Foreign Assets Control with an “invitation to self-incriminate” for how much they spent in Cuba, but the Office took no further action against them at the time. After the activists returned to the United States, they organized more broadly to shut down Guantánamo by working with human rights activists and interfaith organizations.

On May 29, 2008, thirty-four anti-torture activists kneeled and prayed on the Supreme Court’s steps while wearing orange jumpsuits and black hoods similar to the ones donned by Guantanamo detainees. Once inside the majestic edifice of American democracy, they attempted to unfurl a 4-foot-by-30 foot banner reading “Close Guantanamo”. They were promptly arrested and handed a maximum of 120 days in jail. Tim Nolan, one of the arrested activists, later reflected: "Guantánamo is so striking in its immorality and lack of justice . . . if humans were created in God’s image, torture is clearly a defilement of that.”

Six months later, on January 11, 2009, Witness Against Torture began a nationwide, nine-day fast in protest of Guantánamo and in recognition of the detainees' hunger strikes there. More than 90 people participated. On January 22, the day that President Barack Obama was inaugurated, the activists launched “The 100 Days Campaign to Shut Down Guantanamo and End Torture”. During the 100 Days Campaign, Witness Against Torture activists from all over the U.S. maintained a daily vigil at the White House, brought protest signs to congressional hearings, and lobbied lawmakers to change detention policies.

President Obama had promised to close the Guantánamo detention camp by January 21, 2010, but reneged on his promise. On that day, twenty-seven peace activists dressed as Guantanamo prisoners were arrested on the steps of the Capitol holding banners reading “Broken Promises, Broken Laws, Broken Lives.” More than 100 people participated in the fast and daily actions throughout the nation’s Capital. Inside the Capitol Rotunda, fourteen activists performed a memorial service for the three men who died at Guantanamo in 2006 -- men who probably died from torture rather than, as officials conveniently claimed, suicide (see the March 2010 article in Harpers Magazine by Scott Horton, “Murders at Guantanamo” for more information). The January protests were the culmination of a twelve-day fast for justice and an end to torture organized by Witness Against Torture in Washington, DC. Instead of arresting the Guantanamo interrogators likely responsible for murdering the three detainees or the Bush Administration officials who sanctioned a policy of torture, the government decided to arrest the peace activists.

Next week, on June 14, these twenty-seven peace activists will face trial for condemning the Obama administration’s continuation of Bush policies. The human rights activists plan to mount a “necessity defense” before Judge Russell Canan. “We will be arguing that we broke the law only after exhausting all legal means of opposing a much larger crime — the indefinite detention, mistreatment, and torture of men at Guantanamo and other US prisons,” says one of the defendants, Jerica Arents, in a press release distributed by Witness Against Torture. The trial comes in the middle of Torture Awareness Month, when many groups, including Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International, are planning marches, protests, rallies, teach-ins, and vigils.

Religious social justice activists such as Berrigan do not pursue political power or public approval, but the integrity of their own souls. They fear moral suicide over physical death and regard moral autonomy as more liberating than physical freedom. They sacrifice not only their own safety, but also their religious organizations’ approval. I recently visited Frida’s uncle, 89-year-old Daniel Berrigan, in his well-lit Lower West Side apartment in Manhattan. At one time an outlaw priest who embarrassed the FBI by repeatedly evading capture, the grandfather of the Vietnam peace movement told me he’s extremely proud of his niece, Frida, and the new generation of Catholic Workers who are carrying on the tradition of agitating for peace, loving their enemy, and beating swords into plowshares.

While religion often fosters moral indignation and self-aggrandizement, religion is more often a red herring than a Rosetta Stone for understanding the world’s myriad problems. The real division is no longer between believers and atheists but political conservatives, on the one hand, and political moderates and liberals, on the other. Whether or not the Catholic establishment defends the courageous work of Witness Against Torture as they stand trial next week, secular progressives must rally together and provide these anti-torture activists with moral sustenance because they share our vision for a more humane world.

Deena Guzder

Deena Guzder is a news producer at the national TV/radio show Democracy Now! She has reported on human rights issues across the globe and is the author of Divine Rebels (Chicago Review Press 2011). Guzder is also a member of the Blossom Hill Foundation. To find out more, please visit


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