Four supporters of the School of the Americas Watch were escorted from a Fort Benning telephone conference Tuesday when all weren’t allowed to speak before the Board of Visitors.
The 14-member Board of Visitors has met at Fort Benning since 2002 as an oversight committee for the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation after the School of the Americas closed in December 2000. The committee reports to the Department of Defense and the U.S. Congress. Tuesday’s meeting was the first telephone conference held by the Board of Visitors because of a shrinking federal budget for travel and lodging.
Hendrik Voss, an organizer for the annual protest against the institute on Benning Road, said he and three other SOA Watch supporters were at the conference to speak after John Lindsay-Poland, research director at the Fellowship of Reconciliation, questioned the board about human rights violations by graduates from the institute. Lindsay-Poland’s connection abruptly was cut off before Voss and Maria Luisa were allowed to speak.
“It was a farce,” Voss said Wednesday. “They wanted to pretend that they are open to human rights groups and they are a very transparent organization. At the same time, they won’t release the names of the graduates.”
Supporters of the SOA Watch went to federal court in California to get the names of graduates from the institute. A federal judge ruled in favor of the group, but the decision has been appealed.
Lee Rials, a public affairs spokesman for the institute, said only one person from the group was allowed to speak during the public comment period from 2:40 p.m. - 2:50 p.m.
“I told them that I didn’t care which one spoke,” Rials said. “They just assumed that they all could speak.”
The board had moved on to the next section of the agenda when Voss tried to get others in the group to speak about 3:10 p.m.
“He was told that he could stay if he would be quiet, but he wouldn’t so I asked him to leave,” Rials said. “It was just a matter of they weren’t following the rules. There was only 10 minutes of a public period to speak. They got up and left. Our force protection person walked out with them.”
Before he was escorted out, Voss said he sent a text to Lindsay-Poland and learned that he was cut off in his address to the board. Voss said Lindsay-Poland told him that other people who called in to the comment line could hear him.
“I was raising my hand and trying to say Poland was cut off and the board should want to hear about it,” Voss said. “At that point, some person from WHINSEC told me to shut up and the public comment period was over.”
In a statement, the SOA Watch said the board lacks legitimacy and transparency and the meeting demonstrates an obvious limitation for public access. “Lastly, the way in which the meeting was carried out, and the way in which the public was, for all intents and purposes, shut out of the meeting, contradicts the very legislation established for the Board of Visitors under the Federal Advisory Committee Act.”
This weekend, thousands of SOA Watch supporters will gather at the Benning Road entrance to Fort Benning to call for closing the institute.