FORT BENNING, Ga. – The trials of 27 people arrested here for their November protest of the infamous “School of the Assassins” began Jan. 26 before a federal magistrate.

Of the 27 who were arrested during the actions, 23 were sentenced to three to six months in federal prison and four received probation, Eric LeCompte of SOA Watch said in a telephone interview.

Most of the defendants were fined from $500 to $1,500. The charges ranged from civil disobedience to accidentally driving on a public highway that goes through Fort Benning property. More than 10,000 people demonstrated against the school on Nov. 22-23.

Initially established in Panama in 1946, the school was kicked out of that country in 1984 under the terms of the Panama Canal Treaty. Former Panamanian President Jorge Illueca said the SOA was the “biggest base for destabilization in Latin America.”

Over its 56 years, the SOA, dubbed the “School of Assassins,” has trained over 60,000 Latin American soldiers in counterinsurgency techniques, sniper training, commando and psychological warfare, military intelligence and interrogation tactics. Hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans – among them educators, union organizers, religious workers and student leaders – have been tortured, raped, assassinated, “disappeared” and massacred by those trained at the SOA.

The protests began in 1990 and have grown in number each year, according to Father Roy Bourgeois, founder of SOA Watch, from 10 people to more than 10,000.

“These are people who have heard Bush say, ‘We’ve got to go to the terrorist camps and shut them down,’” Bourgeois said in a phone interview. “We’re saying, ‘Start in our own backyard.’”

SOA costs U.S. taxpayers $20 million every year and more than 160 people have gone to prison for peacefully protesting the school, Bourgeois said, “collectively serving 75 years, while the bullies of the SOA get away with their crimes.”

In 2001 the SOA was renamed the “Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation,” a move designed to deflect attention away from its continuing activities, say anti-SOA activists.

That same year the Army began putting a barbwire fence at the entrance to Fort Benning to keep protesters from entering the base. It quickly became a place to put signs, crosses, and personal items in memory of the victims. In 2002 police began blocking off the entire demonstration area, forcing all participants to go through metal detectors and have their belongings searched. Items for street theater and even puppets are prohibited even though they are obviously not weapons.

This year the city required expensive insurance coverage for any demonstration with more than 10,000 people, a measure clearly tailored to target SOA Watch. Another new harassment tactic this year was the Army blaring music and military propaganda from huge loudspeakers to try to drown out protest speakers and musicians. Although the noise from the loud speakers was deafening near the fence, most who were some distance back could barely hear it.

One of the 45 arrested this year was Kathy Kelly, founder of Voices in the Wilderness and one of the original 10 SOA protesters in 1990. Military police (MP) roughed her up while she was in custody, according to Bourgeois. This is the first time the MPs have used this level of brutality, he said.

When asked if the stepped-up repression was a sign that the closing may be near, Bourgeois laughed and said, “We’re getting there.” Referring to SOA’s directors, Bourgeois said, “I wouldn’t want their job right now. They know we’ll keep coming back, and in greater numbers, until it is closed.”

Trade unionists were among those leading the demonstration last November. “We know if we don’t stand up for the workers in Central America, and El Salvador, and Nicaragua, Colombia – if we don’t stand up for those workers we’re going to be brought down to the level of poverty of those workers,” United Auto Workers International Vice President Bob King told the huge crowd.

“I understand and I know you understand in being here that if people of good will and people of conscience and people of deep spiritual values don’t stand up today in America, then we’re going to see this country shift to be a police state.”

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