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Nuns Who Raided Silo Stand Firm
Trio contend international law is on their side, but prosecutors disagree

By Howard Pankratz,
Denver Post Legal Affairs Writer

Monday, February 03, 2003 - When three nuns cut down fences around a missile silo in Weld County in October, they say they were doing what the German people didn't do before World War II: standing up against a government with evil intent.

The three Dominican sisters - Carol Gilbert, 55, Jackie Hudson, 68, and Ardeth Platte, 66 - say they are engaging in civil resistance against a U.S. policy that promotes world domination. They believe the country is bent on controlling the earth, water and sky by military force.

This month, the three are scheduled to appear in U.S. District Court in Denver for pretrial hearings on charges that could send them to prison for 30 years in connection with the Weld County raid.

They said they raided the silo northeast of Greeley on Oct. 6, the first anniversary of what they said was the illegal bombing and invasion of Afghanistan by the United States.

For decades, Platte and Gilbert demonstrated in Michigan to close down two Strategic Air Command bases that had missile-carrying B-52 bombers.

At Peterson Air Force Base near Colorado Springs in September 2000, the trio took hammers to an $18 million F/A-18 Hornet and a Milstar mobile receiver, part of the $32 billion Milstar receiver communications system. All charges were dropped because the damage was minor.

And on Oct. 6, inside the silo grounds just off of Colorado 14 near the former town of Buckingham, the nuns, wearing white mop-up suits identifying them as the "Citizen Weapon Inspection Team," took hammers and banged on the Minuteman III silo lid and its tracks.

They also poured their own blood on silo walls and on the tracks, the rails along which the silo lid is moved to expose the missile.

For Gilbert, the tracks are similar to the tracks that led to the Nazi death camps of World War II.

"For us, it was like ... people in Hitler's Germany who knew those tracks were taking people to camps to be burned, to be gassed," Gilbert said during a recent telephone interview from the Georgetown jail where she's being held until trial.

The tracks represent a missile system, Gilbert said, which if fired would mean "the destruction of planet Earth as we now know it."

"Once we were inside we took down three big sections of the wire fence and then pushed the fence over from inside outwards to expose it," Gilbert said. "We were saying to the public, 'This is an open site, the crime exists here, the crime must end. This is a violation of international law, it is a violation of treaties."'

Then they prayed. "Oh God, teach us to be peacemakers in a hostile world."

Then they sang. "Sacred the land, sacred the water, sacred the sky, holy and true. Sacred all life, sacred each other. All reflect God who is good."

The federal government isn't fond of raids on its missile defense system, which includes silos in northeastern Colorado and southeastern Wyoming. There are 49 Minuteman III sites in northeastern Colorado; 84 in southwestern Nebraska and 17 in southeastern Wyoming.

"These military installations contain some of the most sensitive and sophisticated weaponry in the country," said Bill Taylor, chief of the major-crimes unit for the U.S. attorney's office in Denver. "They are a critical part of our national defense and must be protected. Those who interfere with these installations must be prosecuted."

The nuns are charged with obstruction of the national defense of the United States and injuring the property of the United States. Conviction of the first charge carries a maximum sentence of 20 years and the second, 10 years.

Hudson said a maximum sentence will be a "life sentence" for her.

"I won't be living to 98," said the 68-year-old Hudson.

But the women say they have a duty to protest the buildup of military weapons of first-strike capability.

They claim international law prohibits any country, including the U.S., from having "first-strike, high-alert weapons of mass destruction," including the Minuteman III.

The Nuremberg defense protects them in this situation, the nuns said. They claim that the international war crimes tribunal at Nuremberg recognized that an individual has an obligation under international law to violate domestic law to prevent his country's continuing crimes against humanity.

They believe, therefore, that all Americans have a responsibility to denounce Minuteman-type weapons, which they say could vaporize every person within 50 square miles of impact.

"What we're doing is participating in acts of resistance," Hudson said. "We are resisting our government's travel on a road to crime. We are trying to stop the criminal activity of the United States."

But Hudson knows that federal judges have repeatedly rejected the international law and Nuremberg defenses.

"What they do is discount the whole concept of international law," she said. "I think they primarily call it irrelevant because they know they would lose if international law actually were abided by."

Jeff Dorschner, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Denver, said the international law and Nuremberg defenses have been shot down in Colorado before.

That happened in the case of the Rev. Carl Kabat. On Aug. 6, 2000, Kabat climbed over a fence near New Raymer that enclosed a Minuteman III missile silo and placed bread, wine and a hammer on top of a silo and prayed. Kabat was dressed as a clown.

Walter Gerash, the prominent Denver lawyer who often represents peace activists for free, tried to use the international law and Nuremberg defenses at Kabat's trial.

But U.S. Magistrate Judge Boyd Boland wouldn't permit it.

Dorschner said Boland decided federal law superceded international law and the Nuremberg defense. Kabat was convicted of trespassing and served 83 days in prison. When sentenced in 2001, Kabat had spent 14 of the past 20 years in prison as a result of his protests.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Brown, who is prosecuting the nuns in the Weld County incident, said federal judges who have looked at the issue have ruled those defenses aren't available to defendants.

Brown said the nuns are wrong to believe they have such defenses where civil disobedience crosses into criminal conduct.

Dorschner and Brown say the women simply want a soapbox to espouse their views.

"Clearly, they had no hope of changing American policies by cutting a lock on a gate and cutting down fences protecting one active nuclear missile site in northeastern Colorado, given their failures to change policies they oppose on at least 15 instances where they were previously arrested over the past 19 years," Brown said in court motions.

Federal courts have held that if protesters like the nuns want to change policy, they must do it through the democratic, decision-making process, specifically through their elected representatives.

And the courts have found that people of a country do not commit war crimes simply because they are citizens of countries whose governments committed international violations.

Rather, they are guilty of war crimes only if they helped the government further violations of international principles by their direct actions.

All three nuns entered the Dominican Order in Grand Rapids, Mich. (Hudson in 1952, Platte in 1954 and Gilbert in 1965).

They've been actively engaged in resistance for decades - an outgrowth they say of their immersion in social issues surrounding poverty, racial injustice and the Vietnam War.

Gerash said ordinary citizens have a duty to act. And that's exactly what the nuns have done, he said.

"Their action was to prevent a nuclear war and to declare what they (the missiles) are and they don't want any part of it," Gerash said. "That's an obligation all citizens have."