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Issue Date:  November 2, 2007

Protest against torture earns priests jail time

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Franciscan Fr. Louis Vitale and Jesuit Fr. Stephen Kelly were taken to jail Oct. 17 to begin five-month prison terms for acts of civil disobedience protesting U.S. policy that they say sanctions torture. Both were convicted of trespassing on a military base and failing to comply with orders from a police officer.

Coincidentally, their court date was also the anniversary of the signing of the Military Commissions Act, which suspends habeas corpus for so-called “enemy combatants” and sanctions the use by U.S. agents of interrogation techniques long considered torture, such as cold cell treatment and waterboarding.

Last November, Vitale and Kelly led a delegation to Fort Huachuca, Ariz., home to the Army intelligence school, where interrogation techniques are taught. They hoped to deliver a letter to then-commander Maj. Gen. Barbara Fast denouncing torture. Fast had been head of military intelligence in Iraq during the atrocities at Abu Ghraib prison.

After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a five-member U.S. Army Mobile Training Team from Fort Huachuca was sent to the Abu Ghraib prison “to present training and provide advice and assistance” (NCR, Nov. 5, 2004). A team member told an Army panel investigating Abu Ghraib that he “may have contributed to the abuse at Abu Ghraib.”

At a pretrial hearing, Vitale and Kelly tried to introduce evidence of torture and gross violations of human rights in Afghanistan, Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, Cuba, according to Bill Quigley, a human rights lawyer and law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans who represented the priests. They offered investigative reports from the FBI, the Army, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Physicians for Social Responsibility.

But the federal judge in Tucson refused to allow any such evidence. Because of these restrictions, Quigley said, Vitale and Kelly changed their pleas to no contest and were sentenced immediately.

“We will keep trying to stop the teaching and practice of torture whether we are sent to jail or out,” the priests said in a statement before their sentencing. “Now it is up to every woman and man of conscience to do their part to stop the injustice of torture.”

-- NCR staff

National Catholic Reporter, November 2, 2007

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