Torture concerns fuel record 19,000 attendance at SOA protest

By Elliott Minor

A record 19,000 people demanded zero tolerance for torture at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Ga.Jerry Zawada, a 68-year-old Catholic priest, was released last November after spending seven months in a federal prison for trespassing on government property to protest a Fort Benning school he blames for human rights abuses in Latin America.

Undaunted by his sentence, Zawada was arrested again Sunday when he ventured into Fort Benning to call for the closing of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly known as the Army's School of the Americas.

Zawada, of Cedar Lake, Ind., said another jail sentence would be "nothing compared to the suffering of torture survivors and war victims.

"We want to stop this," he said during the annual protest by School of the Americas' Watch, which has held demonstrations outside Fort Benning's main gate since 1990.

Citing growing concerns about the war in Iraq and reports of torture by U.S. soldiers, organizers predicted a record turnout of 19,000 - 2,000 more than last year.

The protesters, including young parents, veterans, retirees and college students from around the nation, listened to speeches, waved anti-war banners and marched in a solemn funeral procession carrying crosses and coffins to commemorate thousands of alleged victims of military and police abuses in Latin America.

"This feeds me every year," said Medea Benjamin of San Francisco, founder of a woman's peace group known as Code Pink. "It's remembering those who died in my ... lifetime. It also brings together the torture we're part of today in Iraq, in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay. It is painful that that's what my government is known for around the world."

The group's founder, Roy Bourgeois, a Catholic priest, said he expected a few dozen protesters to risk arrest by entering the west-central Georgia military reservation.

The Army added a second fence topped by razor wire last year, and erected a third fence this year, but the protesters - even senior citizens like Zawada - seem to find a way to skirt around the fences or to scale them.

At least 41 protesters were arrested, said Eric LeCompte, the protest's coordinator. "It demonstrates the passion and belief that people have in the issue," he said.

SOA Watch and other critics allege the school's graduates have committed murders, rapes and tortures in Latin America. Military officials deny the charges.

The protests are timed to coincide with the November 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador. A congressional panel concluded that some of the killers were SOA graduates.

"We feel this school is connected to suffering and death for the people of Latin America - a school that is paid for with our tax money," Bourgeois said. "We are saying, 'Not in our name.'

"The people of Latin America are struggling for survival," he said. "They live in shacks without running water, they lack health care, their children died before the age of 4 or 5. They do not need guns. They do not need their soldiers trained in counterinsurgency. They need food, medicine and schools."

SOA Watch plans to continue lobbying Congress to close the school and are pressuring South American leaders to follow Venezuela's example and stop sending students to the school.

"I think we have a very good chance of cutting funding for that school," said LeCompte. "People have a lot of hope right now. They're inspired because they know we're close."

This story was supplied by the Associated Press.