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Demonstrators Supporting Guantanamo Prisoners in Front of U.S. Supreme Court Found Guilty of Unlawful Assembly

Demonstrators Supporting Guantanamo Prisoners in Front of U.S. Supreme Court Found Guilty of Unlawful Assembly

On May 29, 2008, thirty-four members of the civil rights group Witness Against Torture (WAT) were found guilty in the District of Columbia Superior Court of unlawful assembly for having demonstrated at the U.S. Supreme Court on January 11, 2008 against the indefinite detention of military prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The WAT members included college students, religious prelates, construction workers, farmers, school teachers and professors; they came from many different states. Some were members of other non-violent activist organizations such as Plowshares and the Catholic Worker movement.

The Supreme Court protest was to bring attention to the gross injustice of the indefinite incarceration of Guantanamo detainees, both before and after sham military tribunals. Nonetheless, the protesters were surprised to be arrested in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, an “internationally known temple to free speech.”

Constitutional Law Professor Michael Foley of the City University of New York stated, “If you told me that the defendants would be arrested for ‘unlawful free speech’ just twenty feet from where the Justices decide First Amendment cases, I’d say you were crazy.”

At trial, where they represented themselves, each WAT protestor gave their name as well as the name of the Guantanamo prisoner they represented by proxy. Their logic was to gain a trial in the name of each Guantanamo detainee who had been unable to do so despite having been held for up to six years.

Many of the protestors waived their right to speak, in solidarity with the near total denial of legal and human rights to Guantanamo detainees. Others testified that they were peacefully demonstrating before the Supreme Court regarding the then-pending cases of Boumediene v. Bush and Al Odah v. United States.

Superior Court Judge Wendell Gardner refused to admit testimony in defense of the lawful motivation of the 34 defendants from an attorney who had tried to represent twelve of the Guantanamo detainees, deeming such testimony “not relevant.” Judge Gardner did allow the protesters leeway in presenting their cases. Each defendant closed by joining defendant Arthur Laffin’s plea to “end the horrors,” citing the denouncement of crimes against humanity in the Nuremburg Accords (Nazi war crimes trials).

Retired Admiral John Hutson, former Judge Advocate General of the U.S. Navy, said in reference to the WAT protestors, “In the military there is the concept of ‘calling in your artillery onto your own position.’ It refers to heroic action taken in desperate situations for a greater good. That’s essentially what these courageous Americans are doing.”

The thirty-four defendants were sentenced on May 30, 2008. Twelve received jail terms ranging from one to fifteen days, while the rest received suspended sentences of 10 to 30 days. The court also imposed one-year terms of probation, stay-away orders from the U.S. Supreme Court, and $50-$100 in court fees on each defendant.


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