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School of the Americas Protests: Bay Area Protesters Sentenced in Georgia
13 July 2002
One of three Bay Area residents found guilty of trespassing at Fort Benning, the site of a U.S. Army school that allegedly trains foreign officers in assassination techniques, was sentenced to six months in jail Friday by a federal judge.
The Rev. Bill O'Donnell of St. Joseph the Workman Church in Berkeley also was fined $1,000 after being convicted earlier this week of trespassing at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in the fall.
Two other protesters from the Bay Area, Berkeley peace activist Leone Reinbold and the Rev. Louis Vitale of St. Boniface Church in San Francisco, also were convicted and were awaiting their sentences late Friday night.
They were among 43 demonstrators arrested last year while protesting the school's alleged involvement in training foreign security and intelligence officers in lethal arts.
Thirty-seven of the demonstrators were tried on trespassing charges before U.S. Magistrate Mallon Faircloth, and all but one were found guilty.
O'Donnell, 72, was among the first to be sentenced Friday morning. He said the court's action showed its "moral bankruptcy" and told Faircloth the courthouse should have a sign above its door saying, "Abandon hope all ye who enter here."
Reinbold, 24, was awaiting her sentence Friday night and told The Chronicle the experience had been nerve-racking, but instructive.
"The testimony has been amazing," she said. "I have been in wonderful company. . . . It has been a good experience in many ways. I only hope prison is as much of a learning experience."
The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly known as the School of the Americas, is a specialized training center at Fort Benning. It instructs as many as 900 soldiers and police officers from other nations annually in a variety of subjects, including civil disorder management, collecting and analyzing military intelligence and anti-drug operations.
Critics allege that the institute also trains students in techniques of torture and assassination, pointing to a number of incidents in which graduates of the school have been implicated in atrocities in Latin America. The critics want the school closed permanently and have repeatedly held demonstrations at the site.
The school's officials deny training foreign military and security personnel to commit acts of terror and say they have instituted human rights training as a regular part of their curriculum.
"Those who want the school closed mean well, but their information is simply incorrect," said Gina DiNicolo, a spokeswoman for the institute.
But critics such as U.S. Army Maj. Joe Blair, a former director of instruction at the school who testified in behalf of the defendants during this week's proceedings, say there is little difference between the institute and the School of the Americas.
"There are no substantive changes besides the name," Blair testified during the trial. "They teach the identical courses that I taught, and changed the course names and use the same manuals."
Bill Wallace and Jim Houston