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ACCSOA Shows Support for SOA Opponents set to Face Trial

On Sunday afternoon, May 20th, members of ACCSOA (Atlanta Coalition to Close the SOA) brought puppets to a vigil at the gates of Ft. Benning in Columbus, GA. The vigil was held in support of the 26 defendents who will go to trial next week. The 26 face charges stemming from particpation in a civil disobedience action to protest the School of the Americas last Novemeber. The SOA ,which trains Latin American soldiers in combat skills, has produced some of this hemisphere's worst human rights violators
Several members of the Atlanta Coalition to Close the School of the Americas (ACCSOA) held a vigil at the gates of Ft. Benning in support of the 26 defendants set to go to trial May 22, 2001. The defendants are charged with re-entering the US Army Military Reservation at Ft. Benning, GA after being ordered not to return. They face up to six months imprisonment and /or a $5000 fine. The ACCSOA carried 26 bird puppets to Columbus vigil which, according group member Sara Totonchi, "Represented the courage of each defendant," as they face their trial next Tuesday.

Twenty-four of the defendants were among the 3,600 protestors who "crossed the line" onto Ft Benning last November as part of a solemn funeral procession commemorating the 1989 murder of six Jesuits and two women in El Salvador by graduates of the SOA. During its 54 year history, the US tax supported School of the Americas (recently renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) has trained over 60,000 Latin American troops in combat skills. Countless of the graduates, upon returning to their home countries, have committed human rights violation against their own people. Even today, SOA graduates continue to appear in reports of current abuses in such countries as El Salvador and Columbia.

"What's happening is so heinous, so diabolical that I had to stand up for the rights of others. It's my civic responsibility", said Richard John Kinane of Boulder, Colorado regarding the SOA. As one of the 26 defendants he is part of a diverse group coming from 12 different states whose ages range from 19 to 88. Their varied backgrounds include a prison chaplain, two school teachers, a retired business executive, a journalist, a union organizer, and four nuns.

At 2:30 in the afternoon on a break from meeting with lawyers, the co-defendants, with their families and friends, joined the Atlanta puppetistas at the gates of Ft. Benning. This is the site of an ongoing vigil to close the SOA held by Jeff Moebus of New Orleans. Jeff, who has been on a juice-only fast for the past 38 days, says he plans to keep it up until June 3. Today, Moebus found a fellow vigiler in 89-year old Angus MacDonald of Syracuse who will keep him company through the conclusion of this week's trial. According to SOA Watch organizer Fr. Roy Bourgeois, Jeff's witness, as a 26-year army veteran who was trained at Ft. Benning, has moved many of the soldiers at the post. Indeed, even as Bourgeois spoke his words were frequently interrupted by the horn blows of passing cars responding to the signs which read "Honk to Close the SOA". This would indicate that local opposition of SOA is growing in tandem with the opposition nationally. According to ACCSOA members the level of Georgia opposition was actually under-represented today. They say that more than a busload of people from the Mission Catolica in Doraville had planned to attend the vigil but could not after their center was devastated by fire- a fire which local authorities are calling arson and which many suspect to be a hate crime against the Hispanic community. "It's part of the same cycle of violence perpetuated here," said Totonchi, parelleling the terrorism in her local community to that in Latin America.

If the 26 defendants do prison time they will add their number to the current list of nearly 50 opponents of the SOA who have served a combined total of thirty years in federal prison for civil disobedience on Ft. Benning. Yet like those before them, the SOA 26 seem prepared to go to prison which co-defendant John Hunt says, "is not a sacrifice, it's a commitment to keep on working until the SOA is closed."

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