27 May 2003
DENVER -- Three Catholic nuns facing prison time for an act of ''civil resistance'' and their supporters say the government is persecuting them in order to quiet the antiwar movement.
''This is a dark time in our country, a time when there is only one truth in the government and very little tolerance for dissent,'' said Ardeth Platte, one of the nuns found guilty of sabotage for her actions at a Colorado missile silo in October. ''We were speaking out against the crimes of our government and they intend to punish us for that.''
Early in the morning of Oct. 6, Platte, 66, Carol Gilbert, 55, and Jackie Marie Hudson, 68, cut through a fence in northeastern Colorado to gain access to a Minuteman III nuclear missile silo. Once inside, they pounded with household hammers on the silo's 110-ton concrete cover and also on the tracks that would carry the lid in the event of a launch. Using their own blood, they drew crosses on the silo and the tracks and then they prayed for world peace and sang hymns until they were arrested.
''God was with us at the site,'' said Platte in a phone interview from her Baltimore home. ''We were successful because we brought a nonviolent spirit to a place of evil.''
In addition to a ''nonviolent spirit,'' the three nuns hoped their action would bring attention to the 49 nuclear-armed missiles in Colorado.
Not only were the nuns arrested, they are now facing prison time after being found guilty of injury to, interference with, and obstruction of the national defense of the United States and $1,000 in injury to government property. Although these crimes, which fall under the heading of ''sabotage,'' carry sentences of up to 30 years in prison, prosecutors say they will seek sentences of five to eight years.
Although far from the maximum, those sentences would be stiff for what the nuns' supporters say amounts to a trespassing case.
''What these sisters did is dissent from the government and challenge it,'' said Ved Nanda, an international law specialist who testified at the trial. ''The law seems to have come down very hard in this case. . . . What the sisters did did not warrant such harsh treatment.''
The US Attorney's office that prosecuted the nuns says they aren't being overly punitive, just enforcing the law.
''The defendants in this case have demonstrated a blatant disregard for the laws of the United States,'' US Attorney John W. Suthers said in a statement. ''No other country on earth provides as many avenues for peaceful and lawful protest as does the United States. But the defendants insist on unlawfully entering onto highly sensitive government installations, damaging government property, and interfering with government operations.''
All three nuns have histories of what they call ''civil resistance.'' Hudson is part of the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action, a Washington state-based group that carries out civil disobedience actions to protest war. Platte and Gilbert are members of Jonah House in Baltimore. Cofounded in 1973 by a former Roman Catholic priest, Philip Berrigan, and his wife, Elizabeth McAlister, part of the mission of the Jonah House is antinuclear civil resistance. All three Dominican nuns belong to the Plowshares Movement, which adheres to the biblical directive to ''beat swords into plowshares.''
In the government's sentencing statement, prosecutors listed the sisters' past crimes to substantiate the need for a stiff sentence. Included on the list is a 2000 incident at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs. After illegally entering the base, the nuns struck a parked Marine fighter jet with a hammer and poured their blood on its landing gear. Charges in that case were dropped. Sentencing is set for July 25.
''They have been prosecuted in the past for similar acts and sentenced to short periods of incarceration, which have not served as a deterrent,'' said Suthers in his statement. ''It is our hope that this prosecution and conviction serves as a deterrent not only to these defendants, but to others inclined to bypass peaceful and lawful means of protest to commit similar crimes.''
Bill Sulzman, a Colorado Springs-based peace activist who provided support for the nuns during their stay in Colorado, said the sentence is ''the government trying to silence a specific wing of the peace movement.''
''America shifted gears after 9/11. The government is in war mode, where it wants to crack down and make examples of people,'' he said. ''They don't want Americans to look close to home. While they're pointing their fingers at the `axis of evil,´ they´re not talking about all the weapons of mass destruction we have here at home.´´
The nuns' trial took place the first week in April, during the war in Iraq. Members of Plowshares and similar antiwar groups say they are acting under international law to prevent war crimes.
''There are several precedents that say that if a person thinks that international law is going to be violated, then it's his or her duty to act responsibly and try to stop that crime,'' said Nanda, who has written about such cases in his book ''Nuclear Weapons and the World Court.'' The nuns say they answer to both international law and God's commandment, ''Thou shall not kill.''
''It is our duty to do what we can to stop the slaughter,'' said Gilbert. ''These weapons were on high alert and they were pointed at thousands of innocent people.''
Platte likened it to a hostage situation. ''If you know that someone has a gun to someone's head, you break down the door, grab the gun, do anything you can to stop that person -- and you're a hero for stopping a crime,'' she said. ''We cut a few links of fence -- and this gun is pointed at thousands of people's heads.''
But the jury saw the events of Oct. 6 differently. ''I was very disappointed in our justice system -- so much so that I hesitate to use the term `justice,´ ´´ Gilbert said of the verdict. ´´Nothing we did interfered with national security.´´
Nanda was surprised by the verdict and the stiff penalties the nuns are facing.
''Since 9/11, we've been living in an atmosphere of fear and apprehension,'' he said. ''Security is important, but when it outweighs everything else, all of democracy suffers.''
The sisters sat in a Colorado jail for seven months awaiting trial rather than sign personal recognizance bonds promising that they wouldn't commit any further crimes during wartime. But after the trial, they signed the bonds in order to say goodbye to loved ones and give away their belongings before their sentencing.
''We are willing to go to prison if that is what we have to give for peace,'' Platte said. ''We know that there are millions of others who share our dream and hope for a world without war.''
DENVER - Three Roman Catholic nuns facing possible eight-year prison terms for pounding on a missile silo with hammers and smearing it with their own blood are spending their final days of freedom thanking supporters before a court decides their sentences.
Released from jail for the first time in six months, the peace activist nuns are on a whirlwind tour of potluck suppers, doctors' appointments and visits to family and friends.
"Eight years would be a long time to wait to give that gratitude," said Sister Jackie Hudson.
Sister Hudson, 68, Sister Ardeth Platte, 66, and Sister Carol Gilbert, 55, were charged in federal court with a felony for defacing a Minuteman III missile silo on Oct. 6 and are scheduled to be sentenced July 25.
The three, dressed in white chemical weapons suits, trespassed on federal land in northeast Colorado, swinging hammers and painting a cross on the silo with their own blood. They argued it was a symbolic disarmament that did not jeopardize national security.
The nuns said they were compelled to act as war with Iraq moved closer and because the United States has never promised not to use nuclear weapons.
They say they have no regrets.
As they talked about their approaching sentencing, they expressed frustration over being charged with a felony rather than misdemeanor trespassing, as they have been in previous protests.
Prosecutors said the nuns, all closely aligned with the late peace activist Philip Berrigan, showed a blatant disregard for the law and that previous arrests had not deterred them. A federal jury convicted them of interfering with the nation's defense and causing property damage of more than $1,000.
The maximum term is 30 years, but prosecutors have recommended five- to eight-year terms. The nuns are not sure if they will appeal because they are concerned an unfavorable ruling might hurt other activists.
Some peace activists believe the felony conviction was harsh.
In 2001, a priest who broke into a Colorado missile silo dressed as a clown and leaving bread, wine and a hammer was sentenced to 83 days on a federal trespassing conviction.
A dozen years earlier, Berrigan was convicted of criminal trespassing and sentenced to six months in prison for hammering and pouring blood on a naval battleship in Virginia. He was arrested at least 100 times for his protests and served a total of 11 years in prison. He died last year, but his brother, Dan, continues protest activity.
The nuns served nearly seven months in jail as they awaited trial in the silo case, saying they couldn't promise to remain out of trouble if freed on bond. After their conviction, they were released until sentencing.
Sister Platte and Sister Gilbert returned to Baltimore's Jonah House, an activist community founded by Berrigan. Sister Hudson went to a similar community in Polusbo, Wash. She planned to distribute leaflets against the nuclear submarines at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton.
All three planned to meet at their mother house, the Grand Rapids (Mich.) Dominicans, before they return to Denver for sentencing.
Before leaving Colorado, the nuns returned to the jail where they had been housed to encourage their former fellow inmates, who they taught to knit blankets for babies in foster care. They also stopped by the U.S. Post Office in Georgetown to thank workers for taking care of the dozens of letters they received from supporters around the world.
"It's given us a new energy. It's a spiritual strengthening to know we're not alone," Sister Platte said.