Taking on torture: Vermonter arrested while protesting U.S. military school

BURLINGTON — For years, Burlington filmmaker and activist Robin Lloyd has travelled throughout Latin America, observing firsthand the death and destruction left behind by U.S.-bred military policies promoting counterinsurgencies.

More recently, she has been traveling the world as part of Code Pink, is on the national board of the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom, and continues to work as a filmmaker and publisher of Toward Freedom, a progressive-minded, international public affairs website.

On Nov. 20, she took her longstanding opposition to U.S. policies of torture and became one of 40 people arrested at an annual protest against the U.S. Army’s Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). She expects to serve at least three months in a federal prison as a result and pay a fine of up to $5,000.

The school is more commonly known by its former moniker, the School of the Americas (SOA), and is located at Fort Benning in Columbus, GA. Each year, thousands of protesters gather at its gates.

More than 15,000 people were at the Nov. 20 protest, according to protest organizers, making it one of the largest gatherings. After “a rough night” in a local county jail, Lloyd posted bail, but will return on Jan. 30 for a court hearing on a federal charge of trespassing.

Lloyd, who is 67, is no stranger to civil disobedience. She was part of the legendary Winooski 44 arrested in 1984 for a sit-in at the office of U.S. Sen. Robert Stafford over U.S. involvement in Central America, and the Republican senator’s own votes.

At their trial, protesters invoked the so-called “necessity defense”; in other words, they were forced to take illegal actions to stop a greater injustice. This defense, along with invoking elements of international law, was used justify their actions. Chittenden County District Court Judge Frank Mahady agreed with their reasoning and, in a decision still hailed today in some legal circles, acquitted the group.

While Lloyd says she may use the necessity defence again, she doesn’t believe that the federal judge in Georgia will be as understanding as his Vermont counterpart was two decades ago.

Her arrest also means she won’t be able to travel early next year to the World Social Forum, to be held in Venezuela, an annual gathering she had been looking forward to attending.

Lloyd was the only Vermonter arrested this year. Several years ago, thousands of protesters were detained, and then later released, after they crossed onto the school’s property.

“I had gone down just once before, when 4,000 of us walked into the zone with our crosses … and they stopped us and put us all in buses and drove us somewhere and let us out,” Lloyd recalled of her previous protest at the school. “They didn’t fingerprint us or anything.”

Since 9/11, however, Lloyd said the school has beefed up its security around the annual protest, and prosecutors have doled out harsher punishments. “They had three fences, but you could still climb under the fence and that’s what people did. We were hoping that 500 people would cross over, and we could overwhelm them.”

Lloyd said the growing U.S. public debate about the use of torture by the military helped to bring in additional protesters this year to the SOA.

Lloyd was arrested while attempting to issue a warrant for citizen’s arrest to Colonel Gilberto R. Perez, director of WHINSEC. The warrant cited the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states: “[N]o one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” Lloyd claimed that Perez is harbouring known human rights abusers, and should be held accountable.

The SOA has been located at Fort Benning since 1984 when it was kicked out of Panama because of its strong connections to military coups and torture, protesters say. More than 60,000 soldiers from throughout Latin America have graduated from the SOA, many of them responsible for some of the worst atrocities in Latin America since the school’s inception in 1946. The list includes the massacre of over 900 civilians in El Mozote, El Salvador, in 1981, and numerous massacres in Colombia this year.

“The people who come to this school are knighted with impunity,” Lloyd said. “They know that no one is going to bring them to account in their countries. This is the grandfather of developing the policy of counterinsurgency, which means setting up these paramilitary groups and slaughtering innocent civilians.” Best website for news

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