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Christian Anti-Nuke Activists, Including 84-Year-Old Nun Megan Rice, Sentenced to Years in Prison

The three jailed activists broke into a US nuclear weapons facility in Tennessee in 2012. (Photo: Transform Now Plowshares)

The three jailed activists broke into a US nuclear weapons facility in Tennessee in 2012. (Photo: Transform Now Plowshares)

Three Christian activists, including an elderly nun, arrested for breaking into a US nuclear weapons base in an act of civil disobedience have been sentenced to between three and five years behind bars.

Reuters reports Sister Megan Rice, 84, was sentenced to 35 months in prison for breaking into the Oak Ridge, Tennessee facility where enriched uranium for nuclear bombs is stored. The Y12 National Security Complex produced the enriched uranium for the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, Japan at the end of World War II, killing or injuring hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians.

Fellow peace activists Michael Walli, 65, and Gregory Boertje-Obed, 58, were each sentenced to 62 months’ incarceration for the July 2012 break-in protest, an act that followed a series of anti-nuclear protests carried out by the pacifist collective Transform Now Plowshares.

The three activists were found guilty last year by a federal jury of damaging national defense premises under the Sabotage Act, a crime punishable by as many as 20 years imprisonment, as well as of causing more than $1,000 in damage to US government property.

The act of non-violent civil disobedience in protest against weapons that, if used, could lead to the extinction of humanity, was called “the biggest security breach in the history of the nation’s atomic complex” by the New York Times.

‘Armed’ with flashlights and bolt cutters, the trio of Christian pacifists– Rice is a Roman Catholic nun from the Society of the Holy Child Jesus— evaded armed guards, motion sensors and video monitors to trespass onto the base and splashed blood on the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility. Enough enriched uranium for thousands of nuclear bombs, potentially enough to kill every human being on earth, is stored there.

The activists also hung banners at the facility. One of them cited the biblical Book of Isaiah:

“They shall beat swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” (Isaiah 2:4)

“It’s the criminality of this 70-year industry,” Rice explained to the New York Times in August 2012. “We spend more on nuclear arms than on the departments of education, health, transportation, disaster relief and a number of other government agencies that I can’t remember.”

Rice, who has been arrested 40 or 50 times while peacefully protesting, faced up to 30 years behind bars. She asked the judge to give her the maximum prison sentence.

“Please have no leniency with me,” pleaded Rice. “To remain in prison for the rest of my life would be the greatest gift you could give me.”

Rice said she has learned to see her fellow inmates as “victims” of a system controlled by pro-nuclear leaders.

“They know that they are the human fallout and the victims of the profiteering by the elite and top leaders of the corporations that are contracted to make the nuclear weapons,” Rice told Al Jazeera in November. “It’s the money denied to human services that should be the priority of any government.”

Rice said prison time will allow her “to serve the other women in prison,” friend and fellow anti-nuclear activist Paul Magno told Al Jazeera.

Like Rice, Walli also spends his time behind bars reaching out to fellow inmates to “instill the idea that human life is sacred.”

In explaining the discrepancy between Rice’s sentence and those of her two companions, US District Judge Amul Thapar cited her age and decades of good works as well as the “extensive criminal records” of the two men. Thapar, who has already ordered the trio to pay nearly $53,000 in damages, implored Rice to use her “brilliant mind” to affect change in Washington, DC rather than break into restricted military bases.

The activists’ attorneys unsuccessfully argued that the defendants were acting in accordance with their religious beliefs and did not mean to cause any harm.

Scores of supporters gathered outside the Knoxville courthouse as the activists were sentenced. The mood was upbeat, but many expressed their disappointment.

“Any government that would lock up Megan, Michael and Greg is desperate to hide the truth,” friend Ralph Hutchinson, coordinator of Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, told Al Jazeera. “By their actions, they have broken the silence; their sacrifice challenges each of us to speak up for a safer world.”

Retired Catholic bishop Thomas Gumbleton condemned the silence of his fellow clergy.

“They’re supposed to be leaders on something like this,” Gumbleton told Al Jazeera. “There hasn’t been any kind of statement from Catholic bishops on what Megan has done.”

Nuclear weapons have claimed hundreds of thousands of Japanese lives, and the United States is the only nation to have ever waged nuclear war. Today, there are an estimated 17,300 nuclear weapons in the arsenals of nine nations– the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. Around 7,700 of these devastating weapons are in the US arsenal, according to the Ploughshares Fund. Throughout the decades, the United States has been the only nation whose official policy has included the first-use of nuclear weapons, even against non-nuclear nations.

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