Sister Megan Rice. (miketreen / CC BY-NC 2.0)

Sister Megan Rice and two Christian pacifists have spent the past few years of their lives in a federal prison for peacefully demonstrating at Tennesee’s Y-12 National Security Complex in 2012. And as The New Yorker puts it, “the legal decisions that freed them [on May 16] were as unprecedented and surprising as the break-in that put them behind bars.”

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

From The New Yorker:

The fact that three people without commando training—let alone a nun, in her eighties, with a minor heart ailment—could get so close to the nation’s largest stockpile of weapons-grade uranium caused the Department of Energy a great deal of embarrassment. Although members of Congress thanked Sister Megan for helping to expose major security problems at Y-12, the Justice Department charged her, Walli, and Boertje-Obed with crimes that could bring prison sentences of as long as thirty-five years. After being found guilty by a jury, in May, 2013, Sister Megan was sentenced to three years in prison; Walli and Boertje-Obed to five. Their defense team decided not to appeal the convictions for destroying government property. The three not only admitted to cutting fences, spraying graffiti on the building, and throwing blood, they were proud of it. And they were willing to spend years in prison on behalf of their beliefs.

The sabotage charge, however, seemed unreasonable. Enacted during the First World War, the Sabotage Act ostensibly aims to prevent enemies of the United States from damaging factories, weapons, and equipment essential to the war effort. But the statute’s definition of sabotage is so broad—the “intent to injure, interfere with, or obstruct the national defense of the United States”—that the law has often been used to incarcerate people who protest against the nation’s defense policies with civil disobedience. During the nineteen-eighties, one anti-nuclear activist was convicted of sabotage after breaking into a Minuteman missile site, and given a prison sentence of eighteen years. Walli, Boertje-Obed, and Sister Megan believed that nuclear weapons, not the protest against them, posed the real threat to America’s national security…

On May 8th, the court of appeals panel issued a two-to-one decision in the Y-12 case. The judge who wrote the opinion was appointed to the court by President George W. Bush; the judge who concurred with it was appointed by President Obama. They threw out the sabotage convictions, and their view of the government’s arguments was scathing. “The defendants’ actions in this case had zero effect, at the time of their actions or anytime afterwards, on the nation’s ability to wage war or defend against attack,” Judge Raymond Kethledge wrote. He criticized the government’s “vague platitudes” and the notion that Y-12’s guards were in any way diverted from their usual jobs: “responding to intrusions is what guards do.” The court vacated the defendants’ prison sentences and sent the case back to the original trial judge for resentencing.

Read more here and here.

—Posted by Natasha Hakimi Zapata

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