Nuns face jail over 'terrorist school' protest

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At the quiet convent in eastern Iowa they are expecting the letters to arrive any day now.

When they do, 88-year-old Sister Dorothy Hennessey and Sister Gwen Hennessey, 68, will say goodbye to their friends and make their way to federal prison in neighbouring Illinois where they will serve six months' imprisonment. Their crime? Trespass.

The two Franciscan nuns, who are also blood sisters, were sentenced last month along with 24 other demonstrators who entered the notorious School of the Americas, a US defence establishment which has trained thousands of soldiers from Latin America.

Figures trained there include the dictators Manuel Noriega of Panama, Raoul Cedras of Haiti and Juan Velasco Alvarado of Peru. Lower-level graduates have participated in the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero and the El Mozote massacre of 900 civilians.

The sisters were arrested after trespassing for the fourth time at the school, at Fort Benning, Georgia, in November last year, along with 3,500 other demonstrators carrying crosses bearing the names of people killed in Latin America during the 1980s and 1990s.

"I think they picked us out," Gwen Hennessey said yesterday, explaining that their sentence was the maximum available. "Going to prison is not going to be easy but we will just think of our brothers and sisters in Latin America and what they have had to endure.

"My sister was offered house arrest rather than prison but she told the judge, 'I am not an invalid, I don't want to be treated any differently.' I think she is actually facing it better than the rest of us. She thinks it is one of those things that happen in life." The sisters – two of 15 siblings who grew up on an Iowa farm – have long been involved in peace campaigns. Sister Dorothy hiked across America in the 1970s to protest against the Cold War arms race.

They were inspired to campaign on Latin America by their late brother, Ron, who spent many years in Guatemala and El Salvador and recounted in letters the horror of the death squads. He was a friend of Bishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador and wrote to them: "Please help stop this madness."

The School of the Americas was set up in Panama in 1946 to train personnel from the United States' military allies in Latin America in subjects such as counter-insurgency, infantry tactics and military intelligence. The training is funded by US taxpayers and conducted entirely in Spanish. In 1996 the Pentagon released seven training manuals used at the SOA. The New York Times reported at the time: "Americans can now read for themselves some of the noxious lessons the United States Army taught thousands of Latin Americans... [The manuals] recommended interrogation techniques like torture, execution and blackmail." Last January the school – relocated to Georgia in 1984 – was renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Co-operation (WHISC) but the efforts to shut it down remain the same.

A Bill to close the facility has recently been placed before Congress, proposed by the Democrat congressman Jim McGovern. He said yesterday: "Keeping the school open is a black stain on America's human rights record."

Another campaigner, the Rev Roy Bourgeois, who has set up a small office at the entrance to Fort Benning from which he has worked for the past 11 years, said: "It is not a complicated issue. It is about men with guns, it is about training on US soil more than 60,000 soldiers who have then gone home to systems designed to keep a small élite in power. We are here to say, 'Not in our name will this continue.'"

A spokesman for WHISC, Major Milton Mariani, admitted some graduates had gone on to commit crimes, but added: "There were 12 different investigations into the School of the Americas and none found any wrongdoing." He said the training manuals had been provided as "supplemental reading".

The two Hennessey sisters, meanwhile, await the letter from the prison authorities. "They have said the only thing you can take into prison with you is your glasses," said Sister Dorothy. "But I hope they will let me keep my hearing aid."