Unmoved by her expression of solidarity with the poor and oppressed peoples of Latin America, a federal magistrate on Tuesday sentenced Raleigh activist Gail Phares to a 90-day prison sentence stemming from her arrest last Nov. 20 in a protest against the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas (SOA), since renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC).
Phares, 66, is a former Maryknoll missionary and founder of Witness for Peace and the Carolina Interfaith Task Force on Central America (CITCA). She has led 46 delegations of North Americans on fact-finding trips throughout Latin America and is internationally recognized for her human rights work.
Phares was among more than three dozen people arrested for trespassing onto Fort Benning during the annual protest that last year drew close to 20,000 people to Columbus, Ga.
“We work for U.S. and corporate policies that favor justice for the poor and against policies that cause growing poverty and repression,” Phares told federal Magistrate Mallon Faircloth. “We are people trained in nonviolence.”
Phares told Faircloth that during her years working as a Maryknoll sister in Guatemala, soldiers trained at the SOA engaged in counter-insurgency warfare that led to what the United Nations concluded was genocide.
“Many of my students and friends were murdered,” Phares said. “People were tortured, disappeared and killed because they dared to live and preach the gospel. I ask ‘What were we thinking?’ and I cry ‘Not in my name.’”
Faircloth sentenced Phares, who had no prior record, to 90 days in prison and waived a $500 fine because she will lose her Social Security benefits while incarcerated.
Phares, the mother of two grown daughters, was supported in court by her husband, Robert Phares, and numerous friends. Faircloth allowed Phares to self-report to federal prison at a later date.
She will likely serve her sentence in the same Alderson, W.Va., federal prison where former state agricultural commissioner Meg Scott Phipps is serving a four-year sentence. Martha Stewart also served a sentence there in 2004.
Linda Mashburn, 63, of Brevard, a longtime Western North Carolina peace activist, also received a 90-day prison sentence plus a $500 fine. The two North Carolinians were among more than 30 people sentenced to prison for their actions at last year’s SOA protest.
Receiving the maximum sentence was Ken Crowley, a Witness for Peace staffer in Washington, D.C., who received six months and a $1,000 fine for aiding and abetting Phares by holding up a fence so she could go under it.
Local activists will miss Phares’ presence during the Holy Week Pilgrimage for Peace and Justice that Phares organizes each spring, a week-long walk that links the struggles of workers and the poor throughout the Americas, making stops in cities and towns throughout North Carolina.