Ft. Benning protesters get rude awakening

By all accounts, last Sunday's 13th annual anti-terrorism march against the former School of the Americas training facility at Georgia's Ft. Benning was a typically civilized affair, drawing a peaceful crowd of 8,000 to 10,000.

But, although Army brass praised the orderliness of the event, the nearly 100 protesters who voluntarily surrendered to arrest for trespassing onto the Columbus Army base were surprised to receive more severe treatment than in years past. Instead of simply being cited and released, those arrested — including a 67-year-old nun — were carted off to spend the night in the Muscogee County Jail before being arraigned the following day in federal court.

Also, for the first time in the history of the annual protest, detainees were required to pay $5,000 bail, rather than being released on their own recognizance.

"It kind of seems like harassment, since we've always shown up for our court hearings," says Matthew Smucker, spokesman for the School of the Americas Watch, which organizes the event. Protesters convicted of trespassing can expect to spend three to six months in federal prison.

SOA Watch is already embroiled in a legal battle over the city's decision to make protesters submit to metal-detector scans and police searches. The group's call for a court injunction was denied, but it's appealing that decision despite the fact that this year's event is over. No weapons or contraband were reported found in the searches.

"This is a dangerous precedent to make people choose their First Amendment right of freedom of assembly and their Fourth Amendment Right of freedom from unwarranted search," says Smucker.

Critics of the former School of the Americas — renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in 2000 — say the facility has trained many Latin American soldiers who have gone on to become notorious human-rights abusers, including Manuel Noriega of Panama.??

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