by Karen McVeigh (The Guardian)
An 84-year-old nun was handed a 35-month jail term on Tuesday for
breaking into a US nuclear weapons plant and daubing it
with biblical references and human blood. Sister Megan Rice was
sentenced alongside two co-defendants, Greg Boertje-Obed, 58, and
Michael Walli, 64, who both received 62-month terms.
At an earlier hearing in January, a judge ordered the three Catholic
anti-nuclear protesters to pay $53,000 for what the government estimated
was damage done to the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant at Oak Ridge,
Tennessee, regarded as one of the most secure in the world.
All three defendants were convicted of sabotage after the 2012 break-in,
on charges that carried a maximum sentence of up to 30 years. The
government had asked for the trio to be given prison sentences of
between five and nine years.
In a recent interview with the Guardian from prison, Rice said she hoped
US district judge Amul Thapar would seize the opportunity to “take his
place in history” and sentence them in a way that would reflect their
symbolic, non-violent actions — actions she said were intended to
highlight the US stockpile of nuclear weapons they believe is immoral
Rice and her co-defendants have been in prison, mostly in Ocilla,
Georgia, for nine months, a period of time her lawyers had argued was
sufficient punishment for the break-in.
On 28 July 2012, the three activists cut through three fences before
reaching a $548m storage bunker. They hung banners, strung up
crime-scene tape and hammered off a small chunk of the fortress-like
storage facility for uranium material, inside the most secure part of
complex. They painted messages such as “The fruit of justice is peace”
and splashed small bottles of human blood on the bunker wall.
Although the protesters set off alarms, they were able to spend more
than two hours inside the restricted area before they were caught. When
security finally arrived, guards found the three activists singing and
offering to break bread with them. The protesters reportedly also
offered to share a Bible, candles and white roses with the guards.
The Department of Energy’s inspector general wrote a scathing report on
the security failures that allowed the activists to reach the bunker,
and the security contractor was later fired. Some government officials
praised the activists for exposing the facility’s weaknesses. But
prosecutors declined to show leniency, instead pursuing serious felony
The activists’ legal team had received hundreds of letters and a
14,000-signature petition pleading for leniency in the case, including
from Rice’s religious order, the Society for the Holy Jesus, which asked
for a reduced or suspended sentence given “her age, her health and her
ministry”. Lawyers for Rice, Boertje-Obed, a Vietnam veteran from
Washington DC, and Walli, a painter from Duluth, Minnesota, had also
pleaded for leniency.
But the US government argued at the January hearing that they did not
accept that they had committed crimes, took no responsibility for them,
showed no contrition and then, during the trial, proceeded to argue
against the laws they had broken. It has described the three, who have
previous convictions related to their protest activities, as
“recidivists and habitual offenders”.
Jeffery Theodore, the assistant US attorney general for the eastern
district of Tennessee, told the court that the three “pretty much
celebrated their acts”. At the earlier hearing, he described their
argument that they were trying to uphold international law as “specious
and disingenuous” and said there had been no single case where
international law has been seen as justification for breaking US laws.
At the January hearing, four character witnesses for the defendants gave
powerful testimony about their strong Christian and pacifist principles,
their commitment to helping others, and their dedication to their cause.
They, and the scores of supporters crowded into the courtroom, also
provided an insight into the close-knit nature of the anti-nuclear faith
Mary Evelyn Tucker, director of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale,
who has known Rice all her life, compared the nun’s use of non-violent protest
to the “lineage of transformation” employed by Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson
Mandela and Martin Luther King. She said: “To allow Megan to continue
the work of her life, the work to alleviate suffering, outside the walls
of a prison would be an invaluable gift to the world. To keep her
inside, the world would be diminished for lack of her work.”
Kathy Boylan, of the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker Community in Washington
DC, where Walli is a member, described him as a “quintessential
Christian”. Under questioning from Theodore, Boylan, a plowshare
activist, admitted that, if Walli were to be re-integrated into her
community, she would not discourage him from pursuing similar protest
action in the future.
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