A wild, weeklong trial in Columbus, Ga., ended Friday with two New River Valley activists sentenced to federal prison for protesting last fall at a U.S. Army school that trains Latin-American soldiers, police and civilian officials.
The sentencing late Friday capped a week that included the judge's offer to let some of the 37 people charged with misdemeanor trespassing attend the school they call a terrorist training camp.
For defendant Niklan Jones-Lezama of Blacksburg, the week also included a trip to the hospital after an altercation outside the courtroom with a U.S. marshal and a probation officer.
"It's an absolute circus down here," said Sue Daniels of Pembroke, the other New River Valley resident among the defendants, in a telephone call before sentencing began. "No justice in this land, that's for sure."
Daniels, 42, a doctoral student in biology at Virginia Tech, was sentenced to three months in prison and fined $500. Jones-Lezama, 38, a switchboard operator at Tech, was sentenced to six months in prison. Both said they planned to appeal.
They were among 36 defendants found guilty of entering Fort Benning, outside Columbus, during an annual demonstration against the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, which is located at the base.
The Army says the institute, formerly called the School of the Americas, encourages peace and democracy. Protesters, who for 13 years have called for closing what they call the "School of Assassins," say it teaches oppression.
An estimated 10,000 people attended November's protest. Daniels and Jones-Lezama, who had not attended the protests at the institute before, were among a small group that conducted what has become a yearly ritual: a mock funeral procession onto the base in which participants carry crosses and coffins to memorialize victims of the school's trainees.
In court statements last week, defendants said they'd acted to prevent crimes against humanity. They pointed out that graduates of the school have been linked to the slaying, torture and disappearance of civilians, and that the countries whose militaries are trained at the institute use their troops against their own citizens.
Testy exchanges between defendants and U.S. Magistrate Judge Mallon Faircloth were common, as were long statements by the protesters before their verdict or sentence was delivered.
Jones-Lezama said he spoke for 45 minutes before his sentencing, beginning with references to Bob Dylan's "Blowing in the Wind" and reminding Faircloth of the days of testimony the judge had heard about the school's misdeeds.
"I asked the judge what he was going to do about it now that he had the burden of knowing," Jones-Lezama said after the trial. "I spoke my mind, and I just got punished for it."
Daniels, who had written a statement, was so frustrated with the court proceedings that she decided not to speak and turned her back on the judge after he sentenced her.
According to the protest group School of the Americas Watch, seven defendants received six months' probation, 15 received six months' imprisonment, and 14 received three months' imprisonment. Most also received fines of $500 or $1,000.
The activists had the support of 9th District Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Abingdon, who wrote to the court on Jones-Lezama's and Daniels' behalf. "I asked for lenient treatment because I think the institute should be closed," Boucher said Friday through a spokeswoman.
Faircloth offered to sentence some defendants to six months at the institute, with the idea that they could return to report what was or was not taught there. Daniels and Jones-Lezama said no one accepted the invitation because protesters decided they would not know if they were really seeing the courses taught to soldiers.
As the trial went late into the night Friday, a court clerk said staff were still talking about Jones-Lezama's scuffle with court officers Thursday. Saying Saturday that he was still sore, Jones-Lezama explained that he'd been in the midst of filling out paperwork when he decided he wanted a lawyer to look things over.
An officer had collected some of the pages and declined to return them or make copies, Jones-Lezama said. When Jones-Lezama reached for the papers, several officers shoved him into a wall hard enough to aggravate a dislocated shoulder he'd suffered in a bicycle accident, he said. Jones-Lezama said he was treated at a hospital.
Former Roanoker Richard Streb, who now lives in Lexington and had served six months in federal prison for entering Fort Benning during a 1997 School of the Americas protest, said that confinement was tough but necessary.
"Somebody has to pay that price if we're going to straighten that mess out," said Streb, 79. "Somebody had to protest. Somebody had to call attention to it."
"No matter what abuse we suffer through our trial and confinement," Daniels said Saturday, "it's absolutely nothing compared to the abuse the Latin-American people suffer under the hand of the U.S. government."
Under voluntary surrender agreements, Daniels and Jones-Lezama will receive notices sometime in the next few months about where and when to report to prison.
Mike Gangloff can be reached at 381-1674 or email@example.com.