28 November 2012
Ever since the F16 fighters were replaced by Reaper drones at Hancock Air National Guard base in upstate New York three years ago, peace activists have engaged in regular anti-drone protests outside the facility. In that time they have learned what to expect: holding banners at a site across the road is tolerated; close proximity or blocking gates risks arrest for trespass or disorderly conduct, a fine, or at the most, a few uncomfortable nights in a cell.
But now, in what appears to be a significant escalation by base authorities, the activists have been subjected to what they describe as an "absurd" restraining order which they say breaches their constitutional right to protest.
The order was issued by a judge [PDF] following the arrest of 17 protesters accused of blocking all three base entrances to traffic last month. It bans them specifically from approaching the home, school or workplace of Colonel Earl A Evans, a commander at the base. Failure to comply is a felony, punishable by up to seven years in jail.
Some of the activists are due to have the charges against them, including disorderly conduct and harassment, heard in Dewitt criminal court on Wednesday.
The arrested protesters, three of whom spoke to the Guardian, said they had never heard of Evans, had never met him and did not know what he looked like. He is the mission support group commander of the 174th fighter wing group, according to court documents.
Neither his home or school address is known to the defendants or detailed in the order, which names his place of work as 6001 East Molloy Road in Dewitt, New York – the military base. They are also banned from all forms of communication with Evans, including by email.
In a deposition to the court dated 25 October, Evans called for an order of protection and prosecution of the arrested protesters to the "fullest extent". He said the blocking of all three gates by the protesters was the "third time that protesters had done an unannounced protest" that resulted in a closure of the gate.
Written by hand, in block capitals, Evans wrote: "As an authorised representative of Hancock Field, I request that the court issue an order of protection on each and every defendant arrested such that they are to stay away from Hancock Field and I request prosecution to the fullest extent of the law."
The order has created confusion among the activists involved, as they say they no longer know where they can legitimately protest against the unmanned drones, which are operated from the base.
One of the 17 arrested, Elliott Adams, said: "This is a new tactic to deny us our first amendment rights to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly and to petition our government."
Adams, a Vietnam veteran, past president of Veterans for Peace and former mayor of Sharon Springs, accused the military and local law enforcement of increasingly heavy-handed tactics against peaceful protests. In the last 18 months, more than 100 people have been arrested at the base, according to protesters, but in at least a third of the cases, the charges have been dropped.
Last year, Adams was among 33 protesters arrested after marching in single file on the side of the road, in what he described as "frivolous charges" which were later dropped. But the latest order is the worst so far, he said.
"We are committed to non-violence" said Adams. "It's absurd that this order is all about Evans' personal well being. He's the guy who has spent a lifetime training in delivering violence and killing people and I say that as a veteran myself. Those inside Hancock are the ones with the M16s and assault rifles, the MQ9 drones. We as individuals are obligated to stop our government committing war crimes – that's part of what came out of Nuremberg. This is a misuse of the law."
Adams said that he has repeatedly been arrested as he attempted to deliver a letter to the base commander, Colonel Greg Semmel, and others accusing the government of war crimes.
The order of protection, issued by Donald Benack, a judge in the Dewitt town court, Onondaga, New York, on 25 October, forbids the 17 activists from contacting Evans, and, specifically, forbids them from the following:
The activists, Adams said, had asked if the order meant they had to stay away from the weekly permitted protest across the road from the base. The response from law enforcement officers: if Evans found it "irritating" then it did.
Adams now plans to consult an attorney over the best strategy to take over the order. His case comes up in court later this month.
Another protester, Mark Scibilia-Carver, said he considered it part of his duty as a Christian to protest at the base, but that the order may deter him.
Scibilia-Carver, 60, an arborist from Trumensberg who has already spent five days in jail after being arrested at Hancock in the past, said: "The order of protection threatens a felony and that's seven years. It's very heavy-handed. I'm surprised the judge signed it. I will resist as far as I'm able but I have to think about the possibility of a longer sentence. I didn't do that well in jail the last time."
He has used court time in the past to argue the case against drones and has even offered, unsuccessfully in lieu of payment of a $250 fine, to submit a contribution to the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers charity.
Scibilia-Carver, who began protesting at the base on Good Friday last year, said: "The US is the biggest imperial force in the world and it seems that poor people are expendable. Civilians get caught up in drone strikes. Even those who are targeted as terrorists are not being afforded the rule of law."
The letter of indictment, which protesters have attempted to deliver to Semmel and others, accuses the US government of war crimes, including the killing of innocent civilians, by remote means. It cites the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, who, in 2010, called the use of drones in targeted killings "a highly problematic blurring and expansion of the boundaries of the applicable legal frameworks" which has resulted in "the displacement of clear legal standards with a vaguely defined licence to kill, and the creation of a major accountability vacuum".
The letter adds: "There is no legal basis for defining the scope of area
where drones can or cannot be used, no legal criteria for deciding which
people can be targeted for killing, no procedural safety to ensure the
legality of the decision to kill and the accuracy of the assassination.