SOA Watch 'Peace Clown' sentenced to six months in prison

mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.com, tstevens@ledger-enquirer.comMarch 13, 2013 

Update (Wednesday, 1:15 p.m.):

An Americus SOA Watch activist who was arrested for criminal trespass at the 22nd "SOA Watch" demonstration was sentenced to six months in prison Wednesday during a 10 a.m. federal court session.

Robert Norman Chantal, 60, who is also known as "Nashua," was sentenced to six months by Judge Stephen Hyles for a Nov. 18, 2012 arrest in which he climbed over the fence at the Fort Benning Road gate. He was arrested as what some have called the "Peace Clown" — dressed in all black with white face paint, with the sentence "Study war no more!" scrawled repeatedly on his clothes and body.

The protest group School of Americas Watch has led an annual protest marking the massacre of six Jesuits priests, their co-worker and teenage daughter in 1989 in El Salvador for more than 20 years. Some soldiers were linked to the School of the Americas, which closed in December 2000 and reopened as the Western Hemisphere for Security Cooperation in 2001.

During the proceedings, Major Joseph LaBranche of the Fort Benning Police Division said several signs were posted warning the nearly 2,000 protestors in attendance that "it is unlawful to demonstrate, protest or come onto [Fort Benning] for unlawful purposes. LaBranche also said a loud speaker announcement played approximately every 15 minutes that Sunday to warn protestors.

"Throughout the weekend we stay on guard until the permit expires and then we resume operations as usual," LaBranche said.

LaBranche went on to describe how Chantal used a collapsible ladder to climb over the fence. A canvas banner was used to handle the barbed wire on top of the fence.

When asked whether the group had displayed any acts of violence in the past, LaBranche told the court the only incident involved a woman in 2009 who also climbed over the fence. She began to kick at officers during her detainment, which led to assault charges. Those charges were later dropped on further review.

Chantal, represented by Loyola University law professor Bill Quigley, did not contest any facts or charges brought against him during the case. Prior to the sentence, Quigley asked to consider his client's non-violent history.

"The actions that he has taken are symbolic, peaceful," Quigley said. "He is a person who is deeply involved in his community."

During a speech delivered to the court after his sentence was delivered, Chantal said he became involved with SOA Watch after spending time and volunteering among the immigrant community in Americus. He learned slowly over time of the cause SOA represented and of human rights violations in South American countries such as Argentina, Honduras and Chile. Chantal described to the court incidents where Latin American families were allegedly raped, beaten or killed during the last several decades by soldiers who were trained at the School of Americas.

"There are hundreds of accounts of human rights violations performed by Latin American soldiers trained by the U.S. Military," he said. "Where is the justice?"

In his closing remark, Chantal asked Hyles to investigate alleged atrocities which the group believes WHINSEC is still committing under its new name.

"Help us close the School of Americas, your honor," Chantal said. "God help the world, no exceptions."

Hyles asked Quigley if Chantal should be sent to a health care facility due to his age. Chantal informed the court that he would require braces for his knees to perform labor during his incarceration.

As Chantal was handcuffed, a group of protestors who accompanied Chantal to his trial sang a verse of "We Shall Overcome."

Among those protestors were NAACP's Edward Debose and Alterna Immigrant Advocy Group co-founder Anton Flores. Nichiren Buddhists from Atlanta, who chanted a mantra of peace during the morning demonstration, were also in attendance, along with members from Veterans for Peace.

Two women stayed behind as bailiffs cleared the courtroom and watched Chantal as he was ushered by officers, singing together "You Do Not Walk Alone."

In January 2012, SOA activist Theresa Cusimano was sentenced to six months in federal prison for crossing into Fort Benning during the annual protest. Both Cusimano and Chantal had been arrested for the same change in past years but given lighter sentences.

Original story

SOA Watch activist Nashua Chantal faces up to six months in federal prison for climbing over a barbed-wire fence and crossing onto Fort Benning property during the SOA Watch protest in November 2012.

Chantal and his supporters marched from Holy Family Catholic Church to the federal courthouse in Columbus Wednesday morning prior to Chantal's 10 a.m. hearing in federal court.

Several speakers, including the NAACP's Edward Dubose and Anton Flores, co-founder of the immigrant advocacy group Alterna Community, spoke before those gathered placed their hands on Chantal and prayed for him. Chantal also spoke briefly before entering the courthouse.

Check back for an update later today.

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