Albion Monitor /News

School Of Americas Protestors Enter Prison

by Elaine Hopkins

Members of national group hoping to close the U.S. Army school linked to torture, murder
(AR) PEKIN, Ill. -- Eighteen protestors from SOA Watch, a national group hoping to close the U.S. Army School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Ga., entered prison last week for trespassing. They include three women sent to the federal prison at Pekin for six month terms.

The women entered the Pekin prison, triggering an emotional demonstration outside its gates, the first political protest ever staged at the prison.

A group of about 50 nuns, priests, peace and human rights workers prayed, cried, sang protest songs, and hugged one of the women, who turned herself in after the demonstration.

She was Sister Mary Kay Flanigan, 65, of Chicago, a nun who said her prison term is worth it if it helps close down the SOA.

Release in 1996 of Spanish language training manuals recommending torture, execution and blackmail galvanized protests against the SOA
SOA graduates from Latin America are accused of murdering and torturing their political opponents.

"We see the school as a part of our foreign policy. We think (the U.S.) can do better than teaching foreign military people to oppress, kill and threaten their own people," she said.

Two other women, Sister Rita Steinhagen, 70, a nun from Minneapolis, and Judith Williams, 58, of the Catholic Worker House at Waukesha, Wisc. also entered the prison on Monday.

The three were sentenced to six months in prison and fined $3,000 for violating an order not to trespass again at the SOA. The demonstration there last year attracted around 2,000 people from throughout the U.S.

The three women were part of a group of 601 that were arrested. Those sent to prison were repeat offenders who had been warned not to "cross the line" onto the federal property.

The activists are willing to go to prison "to draw attention to the cause. Nobody will pay any attention otherwise," said John Heine of Peoria, who helped organize the Pekin event.

Jailing the protestors doesn't appear to deter others.

Demonstrations are planned in Washington, D.C. on April 26-28, and at Fort Benning for next November 22, where activists hope to convince 1,000 people to "cross the line" onto the base.

"We might be filling these federal prisons with repeat offenders," said Charles Carney, a human rights worker from Chicago. He works with Flanigan at the 8th Day Center for Justice, an institution supported by Catholic groups and individuals.

The SOA symbolizes "the many atrocities committed by the military-industrial complex," said Fr. Jerry Zawada, a Franciscan priest from Milwaukee who said he counsels Central American refugees who have survived torture. Fr. Zawada drove Williams to the Pekin prison.

Supporters of the SOA say the curriculum lately has been reformed to include courses on human rights.

Activists at Pekin scoffed at that argument. Human rights courses are less than one percent of the curriculum, and "are not taken seriously" there, Carney said.

The SOA graduates roughly 1,000 Latin American soldiers and police a year and has trained more than 57,000 military personnel from the Western Hemisphere since 1946.

Opponents say the school's alumni are among the region's worst human rights abusers, and they point to a host of deaths and disappearances, including the murders of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter about eight years ago.

Opponents have protested at the school every year since 1990. They also operate a Web page with more information.

Release in 1996 of Spanish language training manuals recommending torture, execution and blackmail galvanized protests against the SOA. The manuals were used until 1991.

SOA grads are leading the Mexican Army's counterinsurgency campaign in Chiapas
Supporters of the SOA have provided sweeping defenses and testimonials on the SOA Web site.

They attack critics as Marxists, point out that civil wars are historically brutal, and argue the good works of the school far outweigh the actions of a few "bad apples."

The school's advocates say it provides training in democratic principles. Many national leaders, both here and abroad, have credited the work of SOA graduates, in part, for the emergence of democracy in Latin America.

Yet graduates of the school have been linked to numerous high-profile human rights violations in Latin America. Its graduates, aside from killing the Jesuits in San Salvador, were responsible for the massacre of over 900 civilians in El Mazote and the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, a United Nations commission found.

Graduates include Panama's Gen. Manuel Noriega and the late Roberto D'Aubuisson, who led El Salvadoran death squads.

SOA grads are leading the Mexican Army's counterinsurgency campaign in Chiapas, its opponents say.

Last fall the U.S. House came within four votes of approving a $1.5 million cut from the school's operating budget. On Nov. 3, U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy, D-Mass., called on President Clinton to use his executive power to close the school.

On Jan. 21, U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen certified that the school was providing training in human rights, and Congress approved continuing its funding.

But two pending bills in Congress, House Resolution 611 or S.980 would close the school.

Both the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune have editorialized against the school and urged that it be closed.

Elaine Hopkins is a reporter at the Journal Star in Peoria, Ill.

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Albion Monitor April 2, 1998 (

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