Robert S. Rodvik
Three Catholic clergy are facing prison sentences in the US after acts of civil disobedience against a military training school which teaches torture techniques.
Franciscan Frs. Louis Vitale and Jerome Zawada and Sr. Mary Dennis Lentsch, PBVM were Arrested with 33 Others as they called for the Closure of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) a combat training facility for Latin American security personnel.
Formerly the School Of the Americas (SOA), WHINSEC is located at Fort Benning where over 60,000 personnel have been trained in courses including counterinsurgency, psychological warfare and interrogation techniques.
Graduates of the school have been consistently linked to human rights violations and to the suppression of popular movements in Central and South America.
Protests against the SOA/WHINSEC began 16 years ago, and since then 180 people have served federal prison sentences.
Other Christians including a nun are amongst those who have been jailed.
Fr. Louis Vitale, 73, of San Francisco, California, Fr. Jerome Zawada, 68, of Cedar Lake, Indiana, and Sr. Mary Dennis Lentsch, 68, of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, were arrested on Sunday, November 20 after crossing onto Fort Benning.
The group “crossed the line” to protest current concerns about the school’s role in training Latin American militaries and a legacy of torture and human rights abuses committed by graduates of the school.
The three clergy negotiated 10-foot barbed-wire fences to enter the base.
Their acts of civil disobedience came at the culmination of a weekend of protest that drew 19,000 people to the gates of Fort Benning, the largest protest yet calling for the schools’ closure.
Thousands of people from across the Americas, including a large contingent of Catholic clergy, came together to call for the closure but also to protest the Bush Administration’s opposition to banning torture techniques.
Protestors at the vigil called attention to the recent pictures of abuse at the hands U.S. personnel, and reports about secret CIA detention facilities as part of a broader legacy of US support for torture and human rights abuses.
The annual Vigil to close the SOA/ WHINSEC has grown from a dozen people in November of 1990 to this year’s record numbers.
Earlier this year Rep. McGovern introduced HR1217 to suspend operations at WHINSEC and to investigate the development and use of the “torture manuals.” The bill currently has 123 bipartisan co-sponsors.
“The methods of taught at the SOA and carried out by SOA graduates in Latin America have brought death to many people,” said Sr. Lentsch. “I believe my witness of one person, when joined with others, has a spiritual power that can touch the minds and hearts of those responsible for making decisions about closing the SOA.”
The three were arraigned on Monday in federal court on charges of trespass. All pled not guilty. Sr. Lentsch was released on a 1,000 US dollar bond; Frs. Vitale and Zawada opted to remain in prison until trial.
Trials will begin for all arrestees next year.
The SOA/WHINSEC made headlines in 1996 when the Pentagon released training manuals used at the school that advocated torture and extortion and which include passages that list religious festivals as “indicators of an imminent attack by guerrillas.”
Despite this admission and hundreds of documented human rights abuses connected to soldiers trained at the school, no independent investigation into the training facility has ever taken place.