Two Roman Catholic priests, Jesuit Fr. Steve Kelly and Franciscan Fr. Louie Vitale, are willing to go to prison to expose the fact that young soldiers at Fort Huachuca are being trained to torture. Further, one of those young soldiers has already committed suicide after going into the prisoners’ cages as an interrogator in northern Iraq.
At the time of their arrest, Kelly, 58, and Vitale, 74, sought to deliver a letter to the military commander at Fort Huachuca. When they were halted, they knelt in prayer and were arrested.
This case, however, is not just about two priests charged with trespass. It is not just about Fort Huachuca.
These priests are armed with a message about the proliferation of U.S. torture, secret prisons, depleted uranium and prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba who are never charged. It is about torture and the United States violation of the Geneva Conventions.
This case is about how U.S. torture is increasing terrorism in the world.
Kelly points out that it is just a short jump from teaching torture to annihilating human beings with nuclear weapons. His convictions are so deep, that he has already served time in solitary confinement.
Kelly served time in federal prison for the nonviolent direct disarmament of nuclear weapon delivery systems. In Dec., 2005, Kelly served as chaplain for “Witness to Torture,” a delegation of U.S. anti-torture activists who defied the U.S. embargo of Cuba with a march to Guantanamo Bay naval base and prison camp.
During an interview, Kelly remembered the protests and prayers for an end to war and torture, and his position of no compromise that led to solitary confinement.
“I made the place into a monastery. There wasn’t enough time in the day,” Kelly says smiling, remembering the tiny pencils and writing on the backs of envelopes in solitary confinement.
This is Tuesday, June, 5, and the eve of Kelly’s send-off to another federal court.
When asked how he endured solitary confinement, Kelly said, “There is an interior side to us. I spent a lot of time praying.” He also prayed for the guards, who he said were also dehumanized by their own duties.
Turning his attention to the present, Kelly said most Americans are more informed about Paris Hilton’s jail sentence than about U.S. torture worldwide. Further, he said Americans are feeling more intimidated than ever by the federal government.
“There’s this sense that if you step out of line, you will end up like them.” Kelly said more must be done to halt the war in Iraq, especially by religious leaders.
“The silence is deafening.”
On Nov. 19, 2006, Kelly and Vitale approached the Fort Huachuca gatehouse in southern Arizona, seeking entry to speak with enlisted personnel and deliver a letter denouncing torture and the Military Commissions Act of 2006. They asked to deliver the letter to Major General Barbara Fast, commander at the post and a key figure in the torture scandal at Abu Ghraib in Iraq.
When the priests were not allowed to pass, they knelt in prayer and were soon arrested. They both were cited for trespass and released a couple of hours later.
Their letter to Maj. Gen. Fast stated that the priests wanted to speak with enlisted personnel about the illegality and immorality of torture, according to the Geneva Conventions. They spoke out in solidarity with those opposing torture at the School of Americas in Fort Benning, Ga., which is now the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. The letter stated that the Military Commissions Act of 2006 is unconstitutional.
The priests said that torture is increasing terrorism.
“Torture is a useless and unreliable tool that leads to an accepted practice of terrorization and the rationalization of wrongdoing.”
In Tucson, Kelly and Vitale were honored at the “Festival of Hope,” at St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church, on June 5. With anti-torture activists representing vast religious and political backgrounds arriving from across the nation, from North Carolina to California, this was a celebration to kick off a movement.
Speaking to about 200 people in the chapel, Kelly said that it was Colonel Ann Wright, anti-war activist, who suggested the emphasis be placed on the torture training at Fort Huachuca.
Kelly said Col. Wright suggested that he go to Fort Huachuca, where 18, 19 and 20-year-olds were being taught torture. He said since Sept. 11, 2001, there has been a dramatic increase in the incidences of torture carried out by the United States.
“Have we become safer? I think quite the contrary,” Kelly said.
“We’re going to put torture on trial. We’re not going to put it on probation,” Kelly said, receiving laughter and applause.
In Tucson, Vitale began his talk by speaking of the sadness and brutality of torture for victms and activists, including those working to halt torture in the world.
“It can leave us really wounded,” he said, asking people in the audience to share their thoughts with those seated next to them. “We can’t be teaching our children to be torturers.”
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.
Speaking to the gathering in Tucson, Col Wright described anti-torture vigils outside the White House.
“It is so important to get the United States to stop this state-sponsored torture.”
Col. Wright pointed out that the worst photos from the U.S. torture at Abu Ghraib, have not been shown in the United States. She said only 29 photos have been shown. However, the Washington Post and others have a full set of those photos.
Col. Wright spoke out against the Military Commissions Act of 2006 and the misleading term “alternative interrogation techniques.”
“That is just another term for torture,” she said, adding that Congress must demand more hearings on the Military Commissions Act.
During the gathering, Kelly began his address by saying, “You seem to be a group of my peers and Louie’s peers.” Kelly said he doubts he will find a similar group of peers in the trial, if the case proceeds to a jury trial.
In his typical good humor, Kelly asked those gathered for their verdict.
“Not guilty,” the crowd said loudly.
In the audience, prisoners of conscience were asked to stand. A half dozen women and men with graying hair stood and received applause. One man had been released only two weeks earlier, after walking in protest of torture, and placing his feet across the no-pass line, at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Ga.
Here, in this audience, are many of the men and women of the Sanctuary Movement, the Underground Railroad for those fleeing torture and death in Central and South America in the 1980s and 1990s. At least 10,000 people, the majority Indigenous Peoples, received sanctuary at one Southside Church in Tucson alone.
Those women and men of the Sanctuary Movement were remembered in a song, “Wade in the Water,” a song of the earlier Underground Railroad of blacks in the south. Vitale also remembered the “soccer moms” of the Sanctuary Movement in Tucson.
Vitale is a member of Pace e Bene and cofounder of the Nevada Desert Experience, opposing nuclear weapons. He recently served six months in jail following his arrest at a vigil at the School of Americas in Fort Benning, Ga., in November, 2005. He was ejected from Congressional hearings in September after speaking out against the Military Commissions Act.
Vitale said while the action of torture seeks to dehumanize victims, it is important to remember the humanity of those tortured and the torturers. He recalled one young man, only 30 years old, who had been responsible for murdering 300 people in South America.
“He was longing to love.”
“We don’t want to see any of our brothers and sisters tortured, not even cats and dogs.”
Among the speakers in Tucson was Orlando Tizon, Filipino torture survivor. The pro-democracy activist was imprisoned with his eyes duck-taped and in handcuffs in the Philippines. Held in solitary confinement for three months, he was beaten constantly and never knew if he would be one of the men that was taken out and disappeared. At one point, Tizon was taken to a beach, asked where he wanted to be buried and told to run. He walked slowly away, blindfolded, and heard the bullets sound. He did not die that day. Eventually, pressure from the community led to his release.
Although militaries around the world claim that torture is used to extract information, Tizon said that is not the real purpose.
“Its purpose is to destroy your humanity.” He said for victims, recovering from torture is a lifelong struggle. The tortured person trusts no one and relationships with family are often destroyed.
“The bonds that make us human are destroyed.”
Today, more than 150 governments in the world carry out torture. The incidences have increased following Sept. 11, 2001 and because of the actions of the United States government.
During a vigil at the White House, Tizon and fellow activists planned to release 150 butterflies as a reminder of the number of governments carrying out torture in the world.
“We were told this was illegal.” The butterflies could not be released near the White House.
Bill Quigley, attorney for the priests and professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, shared a story. Quigley told of his visit to a prison in Haiti, where there were no bathrooms and people were not provided with food. The prisoners were crammed into cells on concrete slabs. One of the men, speaking in English, called him over to his crowded cell.
“Is it true you are a human rights lawyers?” the man asked. “Yes,” Quigley said, feeling good about the distinction.
“Well, I just wanted to let you know you’re doing a terrible job,” the man said, pointing out the lack of human rights in Haiti prisons.
Quigley, like the priests, said that while there is much work left to be done, there is a great deal of hope and inspiration in the world.
“We have to have our eyes wide-open to torture.
“But we have to have our hearts wide-open to hope, love and inspiration.”
Referring to the legality of the priests action to halt torture, Quigley compared it to the act of a passerby who sees a house burning and a child in the upstairs window. Although the door is locked, the passerby must enter the house to save the child.
“There are times when the law has to be put in the context of justice,” Quigley said.
Quigley said this night was the beginning of a movement.
The movement to halt torture.
“This is not a group of people, this is a movement.”
The next morning, Wednesday, June 6, Kelly and Vitale appeared in U.S. District Court in Tucson for a pretrial hearing. Responding to a Higher Power, Kelly refused to stand as ordered by the judge. The pretrial hearing was delayed and rescheduled for August.