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83-Year-Old Nun Faces Prison After Protesting at Nuclear Plant

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Posted on Oct 5, 2013
miketreen (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Sister Megan Rice.

Sister Megan Rice, a Roman Catholic nun, could be imprisoned for up to 30 years after protesting at a nuclear weapons plant in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Although Rice and two other activists were first accused of trespassing, felony charges were added soon after their July arrest on suspicion of “interfering with national security and damage to federal property.” The Y-12 facility they were peacefully demonstrating at is the main source of highly enriched uranium in the U.S.

When the three activists pleaded for the felony charges to be dropped this week, according to The Guardian:

... a judge denied a motion to acquit them of interfering with national security under the sabotage section of the US criminal code, which carries the harshest prison sentence of up to 20 years. Rice and her two fellow activists, Greg Boertje-Obed, 57, a carpenter, and Michael Walli, 68, a veteran, now face up to 30 years in prison, although the ruling by district judge Amul Thapar, in the eastern district of Tennessee, suggests their sentences will be more lenient than the maximum allowed.

The three describe themselves as ‘Transform Now Plowshares’, a reference to a passage in the bible, Isaiah 2:4, which states: “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

..,In his ruling denying the so-called Rule 29 motion, Thapar writes: “The defendants are entitled to their views regarding the morality of nuclear weapons. But the defendants’ sincerely held moral beliefs are not a get-out-of-jail-free card that they can deploy to escape criminal liability.”...The New York Times described the break-in as he “the biggest security breach” in the nation’s atomic history.

The protesters argue that while they entered the plant with the intention of causing some symbolic damage, including painting slogans on buildings, their non-violent behaviour and peaceful natures could not be interpreted as trying to interfere with national defence. They argued that no reasonable jury could have found intent to cause harm, that the government had failed to prove any intent, and that their non-violent actions did not actually damage national defence.

However, in his ruling dated 1 October, the judge cites the defendants’ phone calls made while in custody, including one in which Rice said the three entered Y-12 to “begin the work of disarmament”; Thapar argues this was evidence that they acted to frustrate the plant’s mission to store and enrich uranium. The mission, he says, was among “activities of national preparedness”.

At one point in the ruling, the judge refers to the sabotage charge and asks the question: “But what about the fact of the defendant’s non-violence – does it make sense to deal as harshly with non-violence protesters as with foreign saboteurs?” He concludes that, the court must interpret the criminal statute by its terms and “cannot fashion case-by-case exceptions of sympathetic defendants”. He goes on to say the defendants’ non-violence will be relevant at sentencing.

The court must account for both the “nature and circumstances of the offense and the history and characteristics” of the defendants, he says. He also dismissed the defendants’ Rule 33 motion, requiring a retrial based on the prosecutor’s alleged misconduct.

Though the lawyer representing the three stated that they were all “disappointed,” after the ruling Rice said, “We’re fine, we’re fine, it’s all good.” Rice and the other two activists are waiting to be sentenced in Georgia at the Irwin County Detention Center.

—Posted by Natasha Hakimi

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