Are the Oak Ridge Defendants Obama’s Pussy Riot?

(photo: Saul Young/News Sentinel)  (photo: Saul Young/News Sentinel)
(photo: Saul Young/News Sentinel) (photo: Saul Young/News Sentinel)

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By Marc Ash, Reader Supported News

10 February 14

 

n February 18, 2014, Federal Judge Amul Thapar will sentence an 83-year-old Roman Catholic nun and 2 others to what could be terms long enough to ensure that all three will die in prison.

What did Sister Megan Rice, 82, and Michael R. Walli, 63, of Washington and Gregory I. Boertje-Obed, 57, of Duluth, Minnesota, do? They cut through three fences with a pair of bolt cutters, hung banners, painted biblical slogans, and threw blood on a wall. Oh yes, and they embarrassed the United States government.

Quietly, with little or no mention by the American corporate press, the U.S. cache of political prosecutions and prisoners is significantly on the rise. Lynne StuartTim DeChristopherJohn Walker LindhJohn C. KiriakouBradley (Chelsea) Manning and more recently the so-called “NATO 3” are but a few examples of novel government prosecutions resulting in unprecedented prison sentences. In each case, as in Oak Ridge, the defendants held strong political beliefs in opposition to the U.S. government.

The government says that that Rice, Walli and Boertje-Obed committed acts that amounted to sabotage, and they had little difficulty convincing a Tennessee jury. The problem is that there was no evidence of sabotage presented by the government. There was evidence of trespassing and vandalism, but the sabotage charge was pure hyperbole.

If being found guilty of sabotage were not worrisome enough, Judge Amul Thapar’s remarks regarding a recent sentencing hearing suggest that he will show no leniency: “The critical point is contrition, and I don’t think any of the defendants are contrite about what they did. The defendants will not be given acceptance of responsibility.

Upon closer examination, however, Judge Thapar’s remarks are not surprising for a man with his political background. Thapar’s path to the federal bench was through staunchly Republican, right-wing political channels. Appointed to the bench by George W. Bush in 2007, Thapar, then United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Kentucky, was a favorite of Kentucky senator Mitch McConnell. In fact, McConnell played a key role in recruiting Thapar from his post in Ohio and was a very vocal advocate of his appointment to the federal bench,singing his praises loudly on the Senate floor during the nomination proceeding. But perhaps the most telling indicator of Thapar’s ideological perspective was his association with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Thapar served on an advisory committee to Gonzales and came under scrutiny in the “firing of U.S. attorneys because they [allegedly] weren’t active enough in prosecution Democrats.

But Thapar and the Republicans are not alone in their zeal to make examples of American dissenters. The Obama administration appears more intent on “Silencing the Whistle-Blowers” than any White House in history. The prosecutions are often novel or even unprecedented, the type that American judges and juries have historically eyed with substantial suspicion. However, in the current climate of mass media-driven fear, American juries ask no questions. Defendants can be tried and convicted of seemingly whatever prosecutors have the imagination to conjure up.

When the U.S. corporate press reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin has orchestrated convictions and prison sentences of his political opponents, there is always an air of condemnation in the reporting. But there is more to report. It should be said that the ranks of U.S. political prisoners are growing every day and that justice is just as much a political tool in the U.S. as it is in Russia. Are Rice, Walli and Boertje-Obed’s actions that much more serious than Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich, the Pussy Riot members convicted and jailed for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred for a protest in Moscow’s biggest Orthodox cathedral.” In reality, the construct and prosecution of the two cases is strikingly similar.

In the meantime we shall see if the Vatican makes an appearance on Sister Megan’s behalf or just quietly lets her go to a place the church’s pedophiles never seem to go – prison.

——-

For reference, the following is an article written by Fran Quigly on the Oak Ridge trial. It was first published on CommonDreams.org on May 15, 2013. Fran Quigly does an excellent job of presenting the case and charges. Full disclosure: Fran Quigly is the brother of Attorney Bill Quigly, who is representing Michael R. Walli in the Oak Ridge case.

Fran Quigley | How the US Turned Three Pacifists Into Violent Terrorists

In just ten months, the United States managed to transform an 82-year-old Catholic nun and two pacifists from nonviolent anti-nuclear peace protestors accused of misdemeanor trespassing into federal felons convicted of violent crimes of terrorism. Now in jail awaiting sentencing for their acts at an Oak Ridge, Tennessee, nuclear weapons production facility, their story should chill every person concerned about dissent in the US.

Here is how it happened.

In the early morning hours of Saturday, June 28, 2012, long-time peace activists Sr. Megan Rice, 82, Greg Boertje-Obed, 57, and Michael Walli, 63, cut through the chain link fence surrounding the Oak Ridge Y-12 nuclear weapons production facility and trespassed onto the property. Y-12, called the Fort Knox of the nuclear weapons industry, stores hundreds of metric tons of highly enriched uranium and works on every single one of the thousands of nuclear weapons maintained by the U.S.

Describing themselves as the Transform Now Plowshares, the three came as nonviolent protestors to symbolically disarm the weapons. They carried bibles, written statements, peace banners, spray paint, flower, candles, small baby bottles of blood, bread, hammers with biblical verses on them, and wire cutters. Their intent was to follow the words of Isaiah 2:4: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

Sr. Megan Rice has been a Catholic sister of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus for over sixty years. Greg Boertje-Obed, a married carpenter who has a college-age daughter, is an Army veteran and lives at a Catholic Worker house in Duluth, Minnesota. Michael Walli, a two-term Vietnam veteran turned peacemaker, lives at the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker house in Washington DC.

In the dark, the three activists cut through a boundary fence which had signs stating “No Trespassing.” The signs indicate that unauthorized entry, a misdemeanor, is punishable by up to 1 year in prison and a $100,000 fine.

No security arrived to confront them.

So the three climbed up a hill through heavy brush, crossed a road, and kept going until they saw the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility (HEUMF) surrounded by three fences, lit up by blazing lights.

Still no security.

So they cut through the three fences, hung up their peace banners, and spray-painted peace slogans on the HEUMF. Still no security arrived. They began praying, and sang songs like “Down by the Riverside” and “Peace Is Flowing Like a River.”

When security finally arrived at about 4:30 a.m., the three surrendered peacefully, and were arrested and jailed.

The next Monday, July 30, Rice, Boertje-Obed, and Walli were arraigned and charged with federal trespassing, a misdemeanor charge which carries a penalty of up to one year in jail. Frank Munger, an award-winning journalist with the Knoxville News Sentinel, was the first to publicly state, “If unarmed protesters dressed in dark clothing could reach the plant’s core during the cover of dark, it raised questions about the plant’s security against more menacing intruders.”

On Wednesday, August 1, all nuclear operations at Y-12 were ordered to be put on hold in order for the plant to focus on security. B&W Y-12 (a joint venture of the Babcock and Wilcox Company and Bechtel National Inc.), the security contractor in charge of Y-12, ordered the “security stand-down,” which was fully supported by the National Nuclear Security Administration.

On Thursday, August 2, Rice, Boertje-Obed, and Walli appeared in court for a pretrial bail hearing. The government asked that all three be detained. One prosecutor called them a potential “danger to the community” and asked that all three be kept in jail until their trial. The U.S. magistrate allowed them to be released.

Sr. Megan Rice walked out of the jail and promptly admitted to gathered media that the three had indeed gone onto the property and taken action in protest of nuclear weapons. “But we had to – we were doing it because we had to reveal the truth of the criminality which is there, that’s our obligation,” Rice said. She also challenged the entire nuclear weapons industry: “We have the power, and the love, and the strength and the courage to end it and transform the whole project, for which has been expended more than 7.2 trillion dollars,” she said. “The truth will heal us and heal our planet, heal our diseases, which result from the disharmony of our planet caused by the worst weapons in the history of mankind, which should not exist. For this we give our lives – for the truth about the terrible existence of these weapons.”

Then the government began increasing the charges against the anti-nuclear peace protestors.

The day after the magistrate ordered the release of Rice, Boertje-Obed, and Walli, a Department of Energy (DOE) agent swore out a federal criminal complaint against the three for damage to federal property, a felony punishable by zero to five years in prison, under 18 U.S. Code Section 1363.

The DOE agent admitted the three carried a letter that stated, “We come to the Y-12 facility because our very humanity rejects the designs of nuclearism, empire and war. Our faith in love and nonviolence encourages us to believe that our activity here is necessary; that we come to invite transformation, undo the past and present work of Y-12; disarm and end any further efforts to increase the Y-12 capacity for an economy and social structure based on war-making and empire-building.”

Now, Rice, Boertje-Obed, and Walli were facing one misdemeanor and one felony and up to six years in prison.

But the government did not stop there. The next week, the charges were enlarged yet again.

On Tuesday, August 7, the U.S. expanded the charges against the peace activists to three counts. The first was the original charge of damage to Y-12 in violation of 18 US Code 1363, punishable by up to five years in prison. The second was an additional damage to federal property in excess of $1000 in violation of 18 US Code 1361, punishable by up to ten years in prison. The third was a trespassing charge, a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison under 42 US Code 2278.

Now they faced up to sixteen years in prison. And the actions of the protestors started to receive national and international attention.

On August 10, 2012, The New York Times ran a picture of Sr. Megan Rice on page one under the headline “The Nun Who Broke into the Nuclear Sanctum.” Citing nuclear experts, the paper of record called their actions “the biggest security breach in the history of the nation’s atomic complex.”

At the end of August 2012, the inspector general of the Department of Energy issued a comprehensive report on the security breakdown at Y-12. Calling the peace activists trespassers, the report indicated that the three were able to get as far as they did because of “multiple system failures on several levels.” The cited failures included cameras broken for six months, ineptitude in responding to alarms, communication problems, and many other failures of the contractors and the federal monitors. The report concluded that “Ironically, the Y-12 breach may have been an important ‘wake-up’ call regarding the need to correct security issues at the site.”

On October 4, 2012, the defendants announced that they had been advised that, unless they pleaded guilty to at least one felony and the misdemeanor trespass charge, the U.S. would also charge them with sabotage against the U.S. government, a much more serious charge. Over 3000 people signed a petition to U.S. Attorney General Holder asking him not to charge them with sabotage.

But on December 4, 2012, the U.S. filed a new indictment of the protestors. Count one was the promised new charge of sabotage. Defendants were charged with intending to injure, interfere with, or obstruct the national defense of the United States and willful damage of national security premises in violation of 18 US Code 2155, punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Counts two and three were the previous felony property damage charges, with potential prison terms of up to fifteen more years in prison.

Gone entirely was the original misdemeanor charge of trespass. Now Rice, Boertje-Obed, and Walli faced up to thirty-five years in prison.

In a mere five months, government charges transformed them from misdemeanor trespassers to multiple felony saboteurs.

The government also successfully moved to strip the three from presenting any defenses or testimony about the harmful effects of nuclear weapons. The U.S. Attorney’s office filed a document they called “Motion to Preclude Defendants From Introducing Evidence in Support of Certain Justification Defenses.” In this motion, the U.S. asked the court to bar the peace protestors from being allowed to put on any evidence regarding the illegality of nuclear weapons, the immorality of nuclear weapons, international law, or religious, moral, or political beliefs regarding nuclear weapons, the Nuremberg principles developed after WWII, First Amendment protections, necessity, or U.S. policy regarding nuclear weapons.

Rice, Boertje-Obed, and Walli argued against the motion. But, despite powerfultestimony by former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, as well as declarations from an internationally renowned physician and others, the court ruled against the defendants.

Meanwhile, Congress was looking into the security breach, and media attention to the trial grew with a remarkable story in the Washington Post, with CNN coverage, and with AP and Reuters joining in.

The trial was held in Knoxville in early May 2013. The three peace activists were convicted on all counts. Rice, Boertje-Obed, and Walli all took the stand, admitted what they had done, and explained why they did it. The federal manager of Y-12 said the protestors had damaged the credibility of the site in the U.S. and globally and even claimed that their acts had an impact on nuclear deterrence.

As soon as the jury was dismissed, the government moved to jail the protestors because they had been convicted of “crimes of violence.” The government argued that cutting the fences and spray-painting slogans was property damage such as to constitute crimes of violence so the law obligated their incarceration pending sentencing.

The defense pointed out that Rice, Boertje-Obed, and Walli had remained free since their arrest without incident. The government attorneys argued that two of the protestors had violated their bail by going to a Congressional hearing about the Y-12 security problems, an act that had been approved by their parole officers.

The three were immediately jailed. In its decision affirming their incarceration pending their sentencing, the court ruled that both the sabotage and the damage to property convictions were defined by Congress as federal crimes of terrorism. Since the charges carry potential sentences of ten years or more, the court ruled there was a strong presumption in favor of incarceration which was not outweighed by any unique circumstances that warranted their release pending sentencing.

These nonviolent peace activists now sit in jail as federal prisoners, awaiting their sentencing on September 23, 2013.

In ten months, an 82-year-old nun and two pacifists had been successfully transformed by the U.S. government from nonviolent anti-nuclear peace protestors accused of misdemeanor trespassing into felons convicted of violent crimes of terrorism.

Fran Quigley is an Indianapolis attorney working on local and international poverty issues. His column appears in The Indianapolis Star every other Monday.


Marc Ash was formerly the founder and Executive Director of Truthout, and is now founder and Editor of Reader Supported News.

Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News.

 

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