Trial for 5 anti-war activists begins today

TACOMA - Five anti-war protesters are scheduled to stand trial today in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, charged with conspiracy, trespass and destruction of government property for entering into a secure area containing nuclear weapons at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor.

The five – including two Catholic priests and a sister – are accused of using bolt cutters to cut through three chain-link fences to enter an area where nuclear warheads are stored on the base, about 40 miles northwest of Tacoma.

The Rev. Bill Bichsel, 82, a Jesuit priest in Tacoma who has been jailed several times for anti-war activism, said he and the four other protesters entered the base on Nov. 2, 2009, as a “symbolic dismantling of the weapons.”

“We were right in where the nuclear weapons are stored,” said Bichsel, estimating the distance to weapons bunkers at 35 to 50 feet.

The others charged are the Rev. Stephen Kelly, 60, a Jesuit priest from Oakland, Calif.; Sister Anne Montgomery, 84, of Redwood City, Calif.; Susan Crane, 67, a retired public school teacher from Baltimore; and Lynne Greenwald , 60, a social worker from Bremerton.

All five have pleaded not guilty. If convicted, they could each be sentenced up to 10 years in federal prison.

Jury selection is expected to begin today, followed by opening statements.

Bichsel contends the nuclear weapons at Bangor are illegal under international law because “they are indiscriminate killers of civilians and combatants.”

But U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle last week prohibited arguments relating to the interpretation of international law as a defense in the trial, according to court documents.

“Our argument has to come down to being able to try to tell our story as much as we can,” Bichsel said. “We’re hamstrung.”

Bichsel said he and the other defendants hope to be able to explain “why we did this and why it was necessary and why it was an act of civil resistance, which our Constitution empowers us to do.”

“Our defense is going to be that these weapons are so horrendous,” Crane said. “We did trespass, and we did cut some fence, but that was very minor when you consider the blast and the radiation and destruction of one of those warheads.”

Emily Langlie , a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle, said Monday that it wouldn’t be appropriate for the prosecution attorneys to comment on the eve of the trial.

But when a grand jury indicted the five in September, U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan said the defendants entered the naval station “during a time of war, cutting through three fences into a clearly marked prohibited zone.”