Human rights activist sentenced to six months in federal prison for protest at SOA

from SOA Watch

SOA Watch activist Theresa Cusimano was sentenced on January 13, 2012 to the maximum prison term of six month for a trespass charge, and immediately taken into custody. She had crossed onto the Fort Benning military base in Georgia in November 2011 to protest the continued operation of the notorious School of the Americas / Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.

Columbus, GA – Theresa Cusimano, 43, was taken into custody in the court room following her trial since Judge Stephen Hyles did not allow her to self-report to prison. Theresa was arrested on November 20, 2011 after crossing onto Fort Benning, Georgia in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience, calling attention to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly known as the School of the Americas (SOA/WHINSEC). Theresa’s act of civil disobedience came at the culmination of a protest that drew thousands to the gates of Fort Benning, calling for the closure of the SOA/WHINSEC and a change in US policy towards Latin America. Protestors included actor Martin Sheen and human rights defenders from Honduras, Colombia, Haiti and Costa Rica. The annual protest denounced the institute’s lack of transparency, its ties to brutal dictatorships and the ever-growing number of human rights abuses and crimes committed by its graduates.

“Our message is not being heard in Congress because our lawmakers have been purchased by other priorities,” said Cusimano. “I choose civil disobedience because the lawless acts promoted by the School of the Americas are human rights crimes unfitting of a so-called World Super Power.”

Cusimano was arrested by military police on trespass charges and was sentenced today by Judge Stephen Hyles to the maximum prison term of six months. Cusimano previously her protest onto Ft. Benning in 2008, an act for which she served two months in federal prison. Protests against the SOA/WHINSEC began 21 years ago; since then over 300 people have been sentenced and collectively served over 100 years of prison time for nonviolent civil disobedience.

The SOA/ WHINSEC, a combat training facility for Latin American security personnel made headlines in 1996 when the Pentagon released training manuals used at the school that advocated torture, extortion and execution. SOA Watch is a nonviolent grassroots movement that works to close the SOA/ WHINSEC and to change oppressive U.S. policy.

The harsh six months prison sentence is intended to stifle the dissent and to deter other human rights activists from engaging in nonviolent direct action. Judge Hyles has always imposed the maximum prison sentences on nonviolent SOA Watch activists, who demand that institutions like the SOA/WHINSEC no longer protect the 1%’s corporate greed over the 99% and work to cultivate a culture of peace, mutual respect and justice across the Western Hemisphere.


Theresa Cusimano Sentenced to Six Months in Federal Prison for Crossing the Line to Speak out against the School of the Americas

“There is but one law for all: the law of humanity and justice”
– Jimmy Carter.

Those words adorn the wall inside the courtroom of Judge Stephen Hyles at the Columbus courthouse. And there they remain, strong words that ring hollow in face of injustice, merely adornments. For her act of peacefully crossing the line at Fort Benning, Georgia – a misdemeanor offense – a 6-month sentence was imposed on Theresa Cusimano. Those who train men with guns at the SOA/WHINSEC, those who created those torture manuals, have never had to defend their actions, yet Theresa is being sentenced to six months in prison for nonviolently calling attention to the US military’s role in the violence carried out against her sisters and brothers in the Americas.

Theresa Cusimano wrote the following statement to Judge Stephen Hyles before her sentencing, telling him that his complicity goes on record today as obstructing international justice and U.S. Rule of Law, and that she wished that he had the courage of Father Roy and the honor of being a subversive.:

“22 years ago, Father Roy Bourgeois played a recording of Bishop Romero’s final homily from the day before he was assassinated by School of the America graduates. Romero was labeled a subversive for identifying with the poor. Roy was so sure that once Romero’s community heard this homily, their hearts would be changed. So he climbed a tree with his friends, replaying Romero’s words to Salvadoran soldiers who were being trained at the School of the Americas to kill their brothers and sisters. Roy wore a Navy uniform representative of his military service in Viet Nam. Because of this action, Roy and his friends joined this circle of “subversives” by shining light on the truth of how the U.S. was spending our tax dollars on its gambling game known as U.S. foreign policy. In this dirty war business “subversives” become fair game for U.S. trained and financed militias while the U.S. continues to profit, sitting back and watching the body count grow, with mass graves filled with hundreds of thousands of mutilated children, raped women and countless, faceless corpses of unknowing communities. Who are we?

Columbus is a proud community that does not deserve the stain that the Schools of the Americas brings. The Fort’s barbed wire fence was not built to aid and abet the U.S. from international accountability for the human rights crimes facilitated by the SOA, violating U.S. statutes requiring transparency, not to mention military ethics. Yet you handcuff, videotape and fingerprint me as a criminal.

It seems we are in a bit of a stalemate. Our prisons are over filled, and our courts underfunded. Yet, you, Stephen Hyles, allow this expensive stalemate to continue. You pretend we are here for trespass, wasting precious resources, ignoring talent and idealism that could be put to better use. Because the Columbus magistrates do not recuse themselves despite their conflicts of interest, because you continue to deny defenses that would allow this debate to come to light. Since international law experts are not granted admission to this hearing, you and I are here today on Friday the 13th… you forced to listen and me sentenced to your prison, as a peaceful protestor. Nowhere else but in Georgia can such extreme sentencing be found to protect a base with a tagline, Maneuvers in Excellence. Is this what you call excellence? I want my tax dollars back. I suppose I should be grateful to make use of my tax dollars in another boondoggle economy that lacks accountability, the U.S. prison system.

I beg your pardon while you make a mockery of justice and we pay the price. General Eisenhower warned us of this stalemate as he left the White House. He warned that the military complex would suck all of the resources our country needed for its people, our schools, our hospitals to fuel its addiction to war. Nobel Peace Laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu begs Americans to, “Stop exporting U.S. warfare.” My witness today Judge Hyles, is to hold you accountable, for the schools that will close this year, the veteran benefits that will be too expensive to make good on, the national service programs like AmeriCorps that will be threatened because you sat silent as precious resources fund the renamed School of the Americas in its latest Honduran coup. You may not hold a machete, or ask children to detonate the landmines used in U.S. financed coups with the protections of a soldier trained here, but your complicity goes on record today as obstructing international justice and U.S. Rule of Law. You have other choices. I only wish you had the courage of Father Roy and the honor of being a subversive.

With employment at an all-time low, who are we to challenge Georgia’s largest employer? We are 300 prisoners of our conscience who have served more than 100 years in prison, collectively. We are supported by hundreds of thousands of protestors. Our legislative campaign with no real funding comes within ten votes of inviting accountability. Today you could choose justice, Judge Hyles… it’s well within your reach.”

Theresa Cusimano, SOA Watch Prisoner of Conscience, January 13, 2012