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OTTAWA — On September 30, 1983, a non-violent civil disobedience action, organised by the Anti-Intervention Action Committee of the Alliance for Non-Violent Action, blocked traffic going into the External Affairs Building on Sussex Avenue in Ottawa. This protest against Canadian foreign policy in Central America led to the arrest of fourteen people.
The trials of the fourteen peace activists, who were charged with public mischief, took place this past April 2, just after Canadian advisors had returned from El Salvador’s elections and as External Affairs Minister Allan MacEachen was arriving in Central America.
Judge Paul Belanger refused to grant the group a joint trial. He agreed, however, to allow each defendant the right to act as an agent in each individual trial.
The defendants began by pleading not guilty, although admitting to their presence on Sussex Avenue.
The first defendants cited Canada’s support for loans to El Salvador through multilateral lending institutions, its bilateral aid program to Honduras, its silence when US covert military actions undermined the Contadora initiative, and its sending of election observers to El Salvador as evidence of Canada’s “active and complicit role in supporting US aggression in the region.”
The defendants also argued that Canada has ratified human rights agreements, and consistently propagates high morals on the international stage at the UN, but does not reflect human rights concerns in its overall foreign policy.
Jean Jacques Bastian, of the External Affairs Latin American desk, was subpoenaed by the defendants. He was asked to justify Canadian aid to Honduras when that nation was engaged in covert actions against Nicaragua. Instead of addressing the military issue, Bastian said that Canada considered underdevelopment in Honduras a crucial concern.
Following Bastian, Hugo Perez, a Salvadoran refugee who was once in the Socorro Juridico (the human rights organisation of the Archdiocese of San Salvador), described in detail the torture and killings of many civilians in his country. He described the paramilitary death squads which he said were “supported by the Salvadoran and US military.” Hugo also condemned the sending of Canadian observers, which he felt only legitimised the military and the death squads, “who didn’t represent the interests of the vast majority of Salvadorans.”
Among the defendants were a journalist who had visited Central America many times, a Catholic lay missionary who had worked in the region, and a teacher who had lived in Nicaragua. They related their experiences to the court and explained that their civil disobedience was justified given that all other methods of protest had failed to stop the oppression and killing in Central America.
Other defendants stated that the court was supporting an unjust system and was itself the guilty party.
Judge Belanger found the defendants guilty and fined twelve of them fifty dollars or a week in jail. The two others had asked to be discharged because a criminal conviction would hinder their future plans to work abroad.