Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Priests Sentenced in Fort Huachuca Torture Protest Case

On October 17, Louis Vitale and Stephen Kelly, two priests arrested for trespassing as they sought to deliver a letter protesting U.S. violations of the Geneva Convention in relation to torture, were sentenced to five months in prison. Fr. Vitale is 75 years old.

On November 19, 2006, Vitale and Kelly had tried to give their protest letter to Major General Barbara Fast, then-commandant of Fort Huachuca Army Base, and previously intelligence chief for the U.S. command in Baghdad during the period the worst abuses took place at Abu Ghraib. Fort Huachuca itself is the site for the U.S. Army Intelligence Center and School. It is alleged that torture techniques are taught at the school. See my article "Torture on Trial in Arizona Desert" for more on the trial and on Ft. Huachuca. Most notable was the judge's refusal in the case to allow any evidence about U.S. use of torture or "the morality or immorality of the government’s use of interrogation techniques..."

According to an article in the Arizona Daily Star:

U.S. Magistrate Héctor C. Estrada said he was reluctantly sending the priests to prison. He said he would have preferred that they do community-service work and remain under court supervision while living in their communities.

But Vitale and Kelly had previously said they would not comply with any kind of court supervision because it would mean giving up their social-justice work.

Additionally, one of the conditions of probation was that Vitale and Kelly not associate with non-violent protest groups, such as School of the Americas Watch. Meanwhile, SOA has published the two priests statement made upon sentencing, reproduced here in full (emphases added):

The real crime here has always been the teaching of torture at Fort Huachuca and the practice of torture around the world. We sought to deliver a letter asking that the teaching of torture be stopped and were arrested. We tried to put the evidence of torture on full and honest display in the courthouse and were denied. We were prepared to put on evidence about the widespread use of torture and human rights abuses committed during interrogations at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo in Iraq and Afghanistan. This evidence was gathered by the military itself and by governmental and human rights investigations. Because the court will not allow the truth of torture to be a part of our trial, we plead no contest. We are uninterested in a court hearing limited to who was walking where and how many steps it was to the gate. History will judge whether silencing the facts of torture is just or not. Far too many people have died because of our national silence about torture. Far too many of our young people in the military have been permanently damaged after following orders to torture and violate the human rights of other humans. We will keep trying to stop the teaching and practice of torture whether we are sent to jail or out. We have done our part. Now it is up to every woman and man of conscience to do their part to stop the injustice of torture.

One can only deeply admire and appreciate the courage of these two men and their supporters. It is one thing to hold up signs protesting the war in Iraq in relatively safe and liberal San Francisco or Chicago or Boston, it is another to put yourself on the line in bastions of militarism and support for Bush's "war on terror" such as the bleak cacti-strewn sands of the Arizona desert.

The monks in Burma got a lot of press coverage in this country for standing up to the military dictatorship of that benighted land. But in this country, the names Louis Vitale and Stephen Kelly are barely known. The mainstream press will not lionize their courage or publicize their cause. As you go through your day, think of these men standing up for their beliefs, who will not be silent, sitting in prison in America, and if you get a chance, send some support their way. Then think. Think hard. How will I help change things in this country?

Write a note of support to Fr. Kelly and Fr. Vitale. They were taken to a privately run detention center in Florence, Arizona the day of their sentencing. Since it is not currently known where or when they may be transferred, please send individually addressed letters to them c/o The Nuclear Resister, PO Box 43383, Tucson, AZ 85733 and they will be forwarded.

Fr. Kelly and Fr. Vitale ask that every woman and man of conscience do all that they can to protest the injustice of torture and to end U.S. policy that sanctions torture. They encourage people to participate in the protests at Ft. Benning, Georgia and Ft. Huachuca, Arizona on November 17 and 18, or consider having a protest in your community. For more information, visit School of the Americas Watch (protest at Ft. Benning) and Southwest Weekend of Witness (protest at Ft. Huachuca)

Their commissary needs are taken care of but contributions for prison support expenses are welcome. Checks can be made payable to the Nuclear Resister (please put Torture on Trial on the memo line) and mailed to the Nuclear Resister, PO Box 43383, Tucson, AZ 85733. Contributions can also be made online at [their] secure Donations page.

UPDATE: After writing this up, I saw that Jill over at Never In Our Names wrote an excellent piece on the situation, back on October 20. From her diary:

Fort Huachuca has a long history of complicity in U.S. crimes of torture. Here is a brief summary. It was the life and death of a young soldier from Flagstaff, Arizona, that gave them the inspiration and now, the fortitude.

Alyssa Peterson, 27, was a Mormon missionary who wanted to do something good with her life. She was good at languages and thought by joining the military, she could serve humanity. She was trained as an interrogator at Fort Huachuca and sent to northern Iraq. She was assigned as an interrogator to a US air base in Tal Afar.

"After twice in the cages, she became suicidal," Vitale said. "She did end up committing suicide."

Peterson's suicide on Sept. 15, 2003, was not revealed by the military. It was exposed by news reporters using the freedom of information act. This was before the torture atrocities of Abu Ghraib were exposed.

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