Radical nun sentenced for anti-nuclear activism

84-year-old Sister Megan Rice sentenced to 35 months for breaking into nuclear facility

Gregory Boertje-Obed, Sister Megan Rice and Michael Walli in Knoxville, Tenn., on Feb. 6, 2013.
Linda Davidson/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Sister Megan Rice, an 84-year-old radical nun who broke into a nuclear weapons facility to protest the nation’s nuclear arsenal, was sentenced Tuesday to 35 months in federal prison.

Her two co-defendants, Michael Walli, 65, and Gregory Boertje-Obed, 58, were sentenced to 62 months on charges of interfering with national security and damaging property at the Y-12 National Security Complex in July 2012 — the facility that once provided the enriched uranium for the Hiroshima bomb.

Rice surprised many by asking the judge for more time behind bars. "Please have no leniency with me," Rice told the judge and an audience of supporters who had traveled from across the U.S. "To remain in prison for the rest of my life would be the greatest gift you could give me."

A longer sentence would allow her "to serve the other women in prison," Paul Magno, Rice's friend and an anti-nuclear activist, told Al Jazeera.

In prison, Rice said she learned to see her fellow inmates not as perpetrators but as "victims" of a system that gave them few options.

Like Rice, Walli spends long hours talking to inmates to "instill the idea that human life is sacred," he told Al Jazeera in a December phone interview.

Rice told Al Jazeera in November, "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. It's (the money) denied to human services that should be the priority of any government." 

Rice faced up to 30 years in prison. The judge said he considered Rice's age and her decades of good works and could not give her what could amount to a life sentence. He asked that Rice use her "brilliant mind" to press for change in Washington, D.C., and not use it to break laws in Tennessee.

But Magno doesn't see it that way. "Very frustrating was the fact that the prosecution and the judge worked very hard to avoid paying attention to the (nuclear) weapons factor, the cause of their activism," he said. "And unless our legal institutions will face that, peace activists will continue to take issue with it and invite the government to investigate the war industry."

The activists put up banners, splashed blood and beat hammers against the walls of the storage facility in a biblical reference to Isaiah 2:4, “They shall beat swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.”

The defense argued the trio acted in accordance with their religious beliefs and did not mean to cause any harm with their action, which follows a series of anti-nuclear protests organized by “Transform Now Plowshares,” a collective of pacifist activists looking to draw attention to the nation’s nuclear weapons arsenal.

In letters to Al Jazeera and a Nov. 29 interview at the detention center in Ocilla, Ga., Rice and Walli repeatedly condemned nuclear weapons as “immoral” and said they acted to bring awareness of weapons of mass destruction. They told the judge at their sentencing Tuesday that they would break into the Oak Ridge plant again.

"I feel deeply happy, truly gifted in making the choices in life as it called upon me and revealed itself to me at each stage," Rice wrote in a letter to Al Jazeera in December 2013.

But the prosecution argued the trio should be sentenced in accordance with the law regardless of what motivated the activists. In January, U.S. District Judge Amul Thapar in Knoxville ordered they pay $52,953 in damages to the Y-12 National Security Complex at a sentencing hearing that was delayed by a snowstorm.

A wide network of supporters have worked tirelessly to support the activists and take turns visiting them in jail. Ralph Hutchison, coordinator of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance and friend of the trio, told Al Jazeera they received hundreds of letters in jail from people voicing their admiration. He said they are doing well and are unconcerned about their prospects. 

“They’re not at all concerned about what the future holds. If he releases them they’re fine, if they remain in prison that’s fine too," he said earlier Tuesday, on his way to the courthouse. “I think they’re (just) slightly impatient.” Moving back-and-forth between cells in Ocilla, Ga. and Knoxville, Tenn., where trial hearings are held, interferes with their ability to receive letters in time, "if at all," Hutchison said, and continue their activism behind bars.

Around 75 supporters gathered at the courthouse in Knoxville, and the mood was positive. The feeling among those gathered is that these three were "brave and courageous" and that the judge should "thank them and let them go," Hutchison said.

But Hutchison said Rice's supporters felt disappointed with the outcome. 

"Any goverment that would lock up Megan, Michael and Greg is desperate to hide the truth. By their actions, they have broken the silence; their sacrifice challenges each of us to speak up for a safer world," a network of supporters led by Magno and Hutchison wrote in a statement.

Despite the outpouring of support, including Japanese media which lauded her action, Rice’s detention went largely unnoticed by the Catholic establishment. When a judge recommended she be jailed for at least six years last month, U.S. bishops remained silent.

"They're supposed to be leaders on something like this. There hasn't been any kind of statement from Catholic bishops on what Megan has done," retired Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, a noted peace activist, told Al Jazeera in an interview in December.

With additional reporting by Jonathan Martin.

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