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A jury in the tiny Irish town of Kilrush, Co Clare, has defied a judge’s strong suggestion that it convict Mary Kelly of criminal damage to a US military aircraft. Her action in late January, followed a week later by the Catholic Worker Pitstop Ploughshares group, put the Navy 737 out of action until May.
Kelly’s action was said to have caused $1.5 million in damage, and as Judge Carl Moran put it in his charge to the jury: "If people are allowed to express their political views by damaging property it would not be long before there would be mob rule and rioting in the streets." (Reporters noted no hopeful tone in his comments.) However, after five hours’ deliberation the jury could only convict Kelly on the lesser trespass charge, and rumour has it they were nearer to acquittal than conviction on the damage charge when they gave up the effort to reach consensus. (An hour earlier the forewoman had said they were close to a verdict–a 10-to-two majority being the minimum requirement.)
Only two weeks previously Judge Moran had agreed to a postponement of the trial of the Catholic Worker 5, and its removal from Clare to Dublin–on the basis of the prejudicial publicity about the harm that ‘direct action’ and other protest had done to the local economy around Shannon Airport, a stopover point for US equipment and personnel en route to the Gulf. Some of the charter operators carrying soldiers switched their stopovers out of Ireland after the actions by Kelly and the Ploughshares group.
Kelly didn’t seek a postponement or change of venue, and defended the charge on the basis that she had acted with ‘lawful excuse’. Her lawyers called a high-powered group of witnesses to support her argument: Ramsey Clark, Scott Ritter and Denis Halliday — all asked to appear only a couple of weeks ago — took the stand on her behalf during the four-day trial, along with Dubliner Michael Bermingham, who spent most of the ‘war’ and much of the time since in Baghdad. (The prosecution, meanwhile, brought in the plane’s captain, Cmdr William John Schneider, who said the aircraft was en route to Sicily and had no arms aboard.)
Having allowed all that highly political testimony, over at least one prosecution objection to Bermingham’s ‘emotive’ evidence, the judge rubbished its relevance in his summing up. According to the court report in Friday’s Irish Times: "Judge Moran said there was a lot of politics in the case. However, he said that politics had nothing to do with the case and is irrelevant to the matter at hand.
"Judge Moran said at times it seemed that the US government was on trial and not Mary Kelly. He said it was not a case of the US government and Mary Kelly or George Bush and Mary Kelly or the Garda and Mary Kelly, it was a case of the people of Ireland and Mary Kelly."
Just to make things perfectly clear, again according to the Irish Times: "Judge Moran said that Kelly’s defence of lawful excuse does not fall within the ambit of the relevant section of the act."
Kelly lives in the remote west of county Cork and is part of the Atlantis Foundation community, which combines therapeutic and political concerns. She has passionately defended her action on the basis of the principle enunciated by the Nuremberg tribunal: "Individuals have international duties which transcend the national obligations of obedience. Therefore [individuals] have the duty to violate domestic laws to prevent crimes against peace and humanity from occurring."
Kelly told the court this week: "I wanted to do something to preserve the life of the people of Iraq," and said she was horrified that Ireland was facilitating an attack on Iraq. In March she tried to turn the tables on the state, writing to the Irish government threatening legal action based on the constitution and UN charter if the attack on Iraq was facilitated.
Former UN assistant secretary general Halliday, who resigned his Iraq posting in protest at sanctions in 1998, told the jury that Kelly’s action was "a form of violence I would support. Bruising an aircraft that is part of the US system is a small gesture and does not represent serious violence." He said the ax-wielding assault on the nose and wheel of the plane was "a good decision as it brought attention to the Irish people of the use of Shannon airport by the US military".
Ramsey Clark likened her action to taking bullets from a gun. "Mary Kelly acted to disarm a war plane and preserve the peace. Property is not sacrosanct If the world had her conscience and courage, there would not have been a war in Iraq."
Even the prosecuting barrister acknowledged Kelly as "a lady of fortitude" who had gone "a step too far". Now the state has to figure out if it can afford the financial and political cost of bringing her to trial again in the autumn.
HARRY BROWNE writes for The Irish Times and is a lecturer in the school of media at Dublin Institute of Technology. He can be contacted at email@example.com