Saturday, February 3, 2007
COURIER photo/Gabriel Fenoy
Josh Harris, a graduate student at Claremont Graduate University, returned from a federal court in Georgia last week where he was handed a two-month prison sentence for trespassing onto federal property during a protest condemning the actions of the School of Americas in Fort Benning.


Josh Harris of Claremont Graduate University was handed a two-month prison sentence by a federal court on Monday for protesting against the School of Americas (SOA). The court found Mr. Harris guilty of trespassing on federal property after he crossed onto the school’s territory during an annual vigil held November 17-19.

The SOA, formerly known as Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WINSEC), is a US Army-funded military education institute which has been widely criticized for training soldiers on various torture techniques and supporting a number of authoritarian regimes in Latin America, known for large-scale human rights abuses. Originally established in Panama in 1946, the SOA trains mainly Latin American military personnel on counterinsurgency tactics.

“My hope is that our military apparatus will be held accountable for their violations of law in the same way that I am being held accountable for violations of law,” said Mr. Harris during his trial. “If we could follow this simple precedent, the SOA would be put on trial in the same way that I am on trial before you today.”

Mr. Harris made no denial of violating the law but emphasized that the motivation behind his actions should be taken into account by the court.

“Again, let me reiterate, I am not guilty of a crime. I am guilty of standing up for human rights, I am guilty of opposing war and I am guilty of seeking the closure of the SOA,” said Mr. Harris.

The yearly vigil that Mr. Harris attended is held to commemorate a massacre at the University of Central America in El Salvador in which 6 Salvadoran priests, their housekeeper and her daughter were murdered. A United Nations Commission found that of the 27 soldiers who were involved in the massacre, 19 were SOA graduates.

Arriving in Columbus, Georgia last Thursday, Mr. Harris was able to spend the weekend preparing for Monday morning’s trial. The weekend gave him the opportunity to meet with 15 lawyers who voluntarily offered Mr. Harris and his 15 co-defendants free legal council because they supported his cause. He also met with former protesters who had been through the trial process and discussed what to expect during the trial and the time he will spend in prison.

On the chilly morning of the trial Mr. Harris, along with roughly 150 supporters, marched from the hotel to the courthouse. As a spokesman for the 16 accused, Mr. Harris stood on the steps of the courthouse to address the media.

“Our opposition took the form of civil disobedience—a peaceful and non-violent direct action to demonstrate our opposition to the SOA and to raise awareness about the crimes the SOA commits in our name,” he said. “Because of this, we all face the possibility of serving up to 6 months in prison. While we do not feel that we deserve incarceration for challenging the abuse of power, we are ready to go to prison for our beliefs.”

Mr. Harris was tried alongside a diverse group, ranging in age from 17 to 73, including a 60-year-old woman, Kathy Webster of Chico, California who is a founding member of the organization, A Thousand Grandmothers. According to Mr. Harris, Ms. Webster was successful in her mission to bring more than 1000 grandmothers to the protest.

From the entire group, only the 17 year old was not sentenced to spend time behind bars due to the fact that she is a minor. The rest were given sentences between one and 4 months. Those who received longer sentences were repeat offenders, Mr. Harris said.

Now back in Claremont, Mr. Harris is awaiting a letter from the Bureau of Prisons, requesting him to show up for his two-month sentence. He expects to serve his time at Lom Poc, a federal minimum-security prison in central California, near San Luis Obispo.

With the threat of violence or intimidation from fellow inmates or prison guards, Mr. Harris expressed concern about what he will be up against in prison.

“I am very worried about going to jail. As someone who resists the abuse of power, I will be locked in a situation which is intentionally set up as an abuse of power,” he said. “But I do believe in my heart that it will be a more empowering experience. As much as I don’t want to go to jail and have concerns, there is a part of me that is eager to learn and be aware of … something that I have always just had a huge fear of.”

Mr. Harris is a member of the group, SOA Watch, an independent organization dedicated to the closure of the School of Americas through non-violent means. The group is hopeful that a narrowly defeated 2006 congressional bill to investigate SOA and cut its funding will be reviewed under the newly-elected congress.


— Tony Krickl