The trial of the St. Patrick’s Four has national significance because it raises several fundamental issues regarding constitutional freedoms and the Bush-Gonzalez ongoing campaign to silence and intimidate dissent and public expressions of opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The trial of the St. Patrick’s Four will establish whether the Federal Government can jail dissenters engaging in civil disobedience for up to six years and fine them up to $250,000 on feckless charges of “conspiracy to impede an officer of the United States by threat, intimidation or force”. Even more ominous, in terms of the procedures for a fair trial, the senior US District Judge for Northern New York, Thomas McAvoy, has ruled that the defendants cannot discuss the reasons and motivation for their action. According to McAvoy, “This court offers no opinion on the war in Iraq as it is entirely irrelevant to this matter…assuming an illegal war, it does not provide a justification for violating the criminal laws of the United States.”
The trial is not only about the right to dissent but the right of defendants to represent themselves and to secure due process, through a proper defense in which all relevant evidence can be presented to the jury. In true Kafkaesque style – the federal government seeks to criminalize dissent, by inventing a bogus accusation of conspiracy and intimidation of federal officials.

There was nothing conspiratorial or intimidating about the act of civil disobedience committed by the four parents. On March 17, 2003, two days before the invasion of Iraq, these four pacifists, members of the Catholic Workers movement, walked into a military recruiting center near Ithaca, New York and poured half a cup of their own blood around the vestibule. They then knelt down, prayed for peace and awaited the police. There were no secret plots: it was a public act about which there was nothing threatening to the officials unless sending a divine message of peace can be interpreted as evoking the wrath of heaven on the war makers.

During their April 2004 trial on charges of criminal mischief and trespassing the four defendants’ eloquent testimony resonated with the local citizen’s jury. Peter DeMott, a Vietnam veteran, spoke to his witnessing the horrors of war and the long-term psychological scars on returning soldiers. Danny Burns explained how the US invasion of Iraq was in violation of international treaties and the UN Charter. Clare and Teresa Grady spoke to their religious obligation to oppose the Iraq war, which would disproportionately harm infants who posed no threat to US security.

Having failed to secure a conviction of the “Four” in a local court, the Bush administration upped the ante from criminal mischief to the far more serious charge of conspiracy and intimidation charges and moved the venue of the second trial away from the sympathetic university town of Ithaca to Binghamton, a city which has lost 30% of its workforce due to capital flight over the past 25 years. The Feds are betting that a guilty verdict in Binghamton will establish a judicial precedent for intimidating and prosecuting anti-war dissidents throughout the US.

Despite outward appearances, the choice of Binghamton, a depressed, de-industrialized, non-union upstate city, as a docile venue for a federal ‘show trial’ could backfire. This July, the Binghamton City Council passed a resolution opposing the Iraq War by a 5 to 4 vote and the city has consistently provided a majority of votes for Congressman Maurice Hinchey, one of the most progressive anti-war representatives in the US Congress. During the past Presidential elections, Nader got over 10% of the vote in some Binghamton precincts. In other words, despite the visible and vocal presence of right-wing Legionnaires, it is not a forgone conclusion that the jury will buy into a guilty verdict, especially since its neighbors in Ithaca voted to acquit the four last year.

To counter the Feds gag order on the defendants, local supporters of the St. Patrick’s Four have organized a national network of solidarity and education through a five-day Citizens Tribunal on Iraq. The Tribunal will hear expert testimony on the illegality of the invasion and occupation of Iraq as well as a legal and moral defense of civil disobedience to oppose crimes against humanity.

Former CIA agent, Ray McGovern, Global Exchange director, Medea Benjamin, anti-war soldier, Camilo Mejia and many other critics of the war have accepted the invitation to participate in panels to counter the pro-war case of the government and local media.

The city of Binghamton is a microcosm of the increasingly polarized country; the outcome of the trial in this obscure corner of New York however will have a major impact on whether the Bush Administration will have the judicial weapons to intimidate the opposition and proceed with its war plans or suffer another defeat in the courts as well as in the streets.

For information on the trial of the St. Patrick Four and the Tribunal and to organize support visit the website www.stpatricksfour.org or call 607-651-9109.

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JAMES PETRAS is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at SUNY-Binghamton. He is the author and editor of over 60 books, including the acclaimed "Globalization Unmasked: Imperialism in the 21st Century". On Monday, September 19, he will moderate the "Voices of Diplomacy" panel of the Citizens' Tribunal on Iraq.