Five anti-war protesters, including two priests, will stand trial today in a US District Court, after entering into a secure area containing nuclear weapons at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor.
The five – including two Catholic priests and a sister – are charged with conspiracy, trespass and destruction of government property, after they entered the base which may contain the largest single stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world.
After mapping a route with the help of Google, they made their way through a network of roads, through woods, along an electrical transmission line and up to a perimeter fence. They are accused of then using bolt cutters to cut through three chain-link fences to enter an area where nuclear warheads are stored on the base, about 40 miles northwest of Tacoma, Washington.
The protesters, part of Disarm Now Plowshares which takes its name from a passage in the biblical book of Isaiah that foretells of an era of peace, have gained support internationally, including letters from three Nobel laureates and retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
The Rev Bill Bichsel, 82, a Jesuit priest in Tacoma who has been jailed several times for anti-war activism, said he and the four other protesters entered the base on 2 November, 2009, as a “symbolic dismantling of the weapons.”
“We were right in where the nuclear weapons are stored,” said Bichsel, estimating the distance to weapons bunkers at 35 to 50 feet. The Navy denied in a press release that they were near the warheads.
The others charged are the Rev Stephen Kelly, 60, a Jesuit priest; Sister Anne Montgomery, 84; Susan Crane, 67; and Lynne Greenwald, 60.
All five have pleaded not guilty, but if convicted, they could each be sentenced up to 10 years in federal prison. Several Plowshares members could face consecutive sentences, which means that if they're convicted, some could very well spend their remaining days in prison.
“These nuclear weapons indiscriminately kill civilians,” Susan Crane told The Catholic Review.
“Whole cities the size of Baltimore or Los Angeles could be destroyed,” she said, noting that the naval base broken into housed more than 2,300 nuclear warheads.
“Not only are these weapons indiscriminate,” she said, “they can’t be controlled in time and space. That makes them very illegal by humanitarian law and treatises.”
But US District Judge Benjamin Settle last week prohibited arguments relating to the interpretation of international law as a defence in the trial, according to court documents.
“Our argument has to come down to being able to try to tell our story as much as we can,” Bichsel said. “We’re hamstrung.”
Bichsel said he and the other defendants hope to be able to explain “why we did this and why it was necessary and why it was an act of civil resistance, which our Constitution empowers us to do.”
“Our defence is going to be that these weapons are so horrendous,” Crane said. “We did trespass, and we did cut some fence, but that was very minor when you consider the blast and the radiation and destruction of one of those warheads.”
When a grand jury indicted the five in September, US Attorney Jenny Durkan said the defendents entered the naval station “during a time of war, cutting through three fences into a clearly marked prohibited zone.”
“All citizens are free to disagree with their government,” Durkan said in a statement. “But they are not free to destroy property or risk the safety of others.”
At a time when the United States is waging a war against terror, Bichsel said, it is possible the federal government may be more stringent in its prosecution of the group. However, he said the group’s ability to walk so close to the weapons bunkers before being arrested shows “they’re not secure.”
Bichsel has spent roughly 16 months in federal prison for acts of trespass at Bangor and at a federal facility in Georgia.
According to court documents from the latest incident, the five cut through the perimeter fence to the base in the early morning hours of 2nd November, 2009. By 6:30 a.m., the group arrived at the secure area. Despite a sign warning that lethal force might be used against intruders, the group cut through two fences and an alarm system to enter the Main Limited Area.
Armed military personnel responding to the alarm saw the group displaying a banner that read: “Disarm Now Plowshares. Trident: Illegal and Immoral.” The group members had spread their own blood out of baby bottles onto the fence and ground. They also scattered sunflower seeds – the international symbol of nonviolence.
Military personnel pushed the defendants to the ground, handcuffed them and placed bags over their heads.
Court documents place the cost of repairing the fences and alarm system at about $6,000.
There have been nearly 100 "Plowshares" disarmament actions around the world since the first one on Sept. 9, 1980.
There will be a vigil outside the US embassy today (Tuesday) which is being organised by ploughshare activists, Catholic Workers, and others.