The dialogue in a federal courtroom evolved into a healing balm, revealing a nation, the United States, that the world has grown weary of, and a growing number of aging Americans willing to serve time in prison to expose the cancer within.
Torture was again on trial in federal court in Tucson on Feb 4. But in dialogue that surprised those that packed the courtroom, the healing remedy of grace and understanding were combined with wisdom and the spiritual foundation for a better world.
Two of the protesters of US torture arrived in court suffering from cold and sleep deprivation. Betsy Lamb and Franciscan Fr. Jerry Zawada, in prison awaiting trial, had spent the night in cold, bare holding cells. Those holding cells are where all inmates from Florence prisons wait all night before a court appearance.
Dressed in thin prison clothes in a cell without a bed, there is only a cold, stone floor to lie on.
Mary Burton Riseley, in a wheelchair and sick with the flu, appeared with fellow defendants Lamb and Fr. Zawada. Fr. Zawada, Lamb and Riseley went to Fort Huachuca on November 18, 2007 to hand out flyers with a message they had written to enlisted personnel and officers, and speak to them about interrogation training and the use of torture. After moving past temporary barricades at the Fort’s main gate, they were stopped from going any further. They knelt down and were arrested.
The drama that unfolded in federal court was of epic proportions and rare for any courtroom.
It was the sort of dialogue that the world benefits from, including a serious look at US torture, the war in Iraq and the courage of those willing to suffer and make a difference.
There were also humorous moments. Those began when US Army prosecutors played a video of the peaceful protestors walking toward Fort Huachuca the day they were arrested.
On the video, an Army soldier says, “I fuckin’ knew it! Here comes that goddam priest! Shit!”
Although the Army prosecutor, Capt. Evan Seamone, told the court that the soldier had been counseled over his language, it wasn’t long before Magistrate Jacqueline Marshall was suggesting that the Army prosecution was doing entirely too much to aid the case of the defendants.
Earlier, attorneys for the defendants had entered into stipulations. No witnesses took the stand. Each defendant was charged with trespass on a military installation and failure to comply with an officer. The charge of conspiracy was dropped in the stipulations.
During the hearing, Capt. Seamone told the court that waterboarding and other forms of torture were not being taught at Fort Huachuca.
However, the defendants pointed out that the torture manual that resulted in masses of people being tortured, raped, mutilated and murdered in Central and South America was produced at Fort Huachuca.Further, the manual and the training at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Ga., continued to provide torture training to military leaders and soldiers throughout the world. (SOA is now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.)
Attorney Bill Quigley pointed out that protesters of US torture have gone to prison for longer periods than some of the US military personnel who have actually committed the torture, even torture resulting in homicides in Iraq.
For Riseley, the aging ill defendant seated in a wheelchair, it was her first time to face the court charged with crime. She referred to the book, “Fear Up Harsh: An Army Interrogator’s Dark Journey Through Iraq.” Author Tony Lagouranis describes how the US carried out torture in Iraq. Riseley said when Lagouranis considered cutting off the fingers of a detainee, he woke up.”
Torture is not a dead issue,” Riseley told the court.” She spoke of how the world was growing to hate the United States, as the US morally excludes others.
Quoting a passage from John, she said, “Perfect love removes all fears.” With so many catastrophes facing the world, including climate change and war, humanity has no choice but to reach out with love in order to prevent becoming extinct like the dinosaurs, she said.
Riseley, who grew up in a military family, said it is her responsibility as a US citizen not to allow torture to continue.
“There exists a culture of torture that is passed down,” she said. “I hope the pressure mounts.”
Riseley said the movement to halt US torture may be small in numbers and the individual actions may seem of little consequence to some, but that is how all of the great social movements for change began, from the women’s movement to the Civil Rights Movement. Every time someone sat down on a bus it brought about change, she said of the Civil Rights Movement.
Lamb began her address to the court by saying she was cold and shaking. “I slept on the cold floor of a holding cell,” she told the court.
Speaking out against the torture in Abu-Ghraib and Guantanamo, Lamb said, “I believe it is the government that should face charges.”
During the eight weeks Lamb was in prison, she received more than 250 letters from around the world, thanking her for taking a stand against US torture.
Earlier, when Fr. Zawada, 71, first entered the courtroom, he did so as a handcuffed happy spirit, fragile, humble and smiling to his friends who packed the courtroom. His kindness and love soon filled the courtroom.First Fr. Zawada described how he spent the previous night in a holding cell, standing up all night in a jail cell of 31 men. He had not slept in 48 hours and was very sleepy. The guards had not allowed him to bring the notes he had written for his sentencing plea.
Fr. Zawada, however, said he was lucky because his fellow defendants were so articulate.
To his attorney Bill Quigley from New Orleans, he said, “Bill has reflected what I have wanted, something of the heart of God.”
Fr. Zawada described his services as a priest in the Philippines and with Chicago’s poor. He explained how he came to understand what depths he must go to, in order to halt the buildup of nuclear weapons and the pervasive mode of war by the United States.”I never planned to get arrested,” he said.
Fr. Zawada was in Baghdad when the bombs fell. He saw people die and knew how the U.S. killed innocent people in Iraq. There were no weapons of mass destruction.
“I hate prison,” Fr. Zawada said, explaining how the noise and waiting for hours to go to the toilet were difficult as one grows older. But he could not promise that he would not be arrested again.
“I’m willing to spend a lot of time in prison if I have to,” said Fr. Zawada, a resident of Las Vegas. “I can’t promise you that I won’t risk being arrested again.”It is time for us to give our country a good name. We don’t need things, but we need a soul.”
Praising the work in the Tucson area, of those who search for dying migrants, Fr. Zawada shared his joy with the court.”Tucson is the first place where the Sanctuary Movement began. I think that’s beautiful.”
Fr. Zawada said he gained his inspiration to risk prison in peaceful protest of torture from longtime friends Fr. Louis Vitale and Fr. Steve Kelly. The two priests are now in prison, serving five month sentences for kneeling in prayer in protest of US torture at Fort Huachuca. Fr. Kelly remains in “the hole,” or solitary confinement in a state of resistance in a California prison.
After the three defendants, Lamb, Riseley and Fr. Zawada, explained their reasons for taking action, and spoke from their souls, each was given 500 hours of community service, or payment of a $5,000 fine, and two years supervised probation.Lamb and Fr. Zawada were released after serving eight weeks in prison.
In the courtroom was Carlos Mauricio, torture survivor from El Salvador. Mauricio, a teacher, had been blindfolded, kidnapped and severely beaten in 1983. He narrowly escaped execution by the Death Squad in El Salvador. The International Red Cross arrived at the National Police Headquarters where he was being tortured at the time that he was taken to the death dungeon.
After the court sentencing in Tucson, Mauricio said this should never exist. He said that no one in the United States should be in court or prison for protesting torture. When Mauricio came to the United States, he thought he was leaving behind a country that engaged in torture.
“I am again in a country where any person can be tortured.”But, he added, “I do celebrate today. I felt the feeling of solidarity. It is the most beautiful thing a person can share with another person, this feeling of solidarity.”
When Retired Army Col. Ann Wright, another voice against torture, left the federal court building, a rainbow filled the sky above Tucson.
“It is a rainbow of justice,” Col. Wright said.