Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Apology comes, but dissent was stiffled

By JoAnne Allen
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Capitol Police dropped charges against activist Cindy Sheehan on Wednesday and apologized for arresting her in the House of Representatives chamber shortly before President Bush's State of the Union address.

Sheehan, who became a central figure in the U.S. anti-war movement after her son Casey was killed in the Iraq war, was taken from the Capitol in handcuffs and charged with unlawful conduct after refusing to cover an anti-war slogan on her T-shirt.

The Capitol Police said in a statement that it had reviewed the incident and determined the arrest was unwarranted.

"While officers acted in a manner consistent with the rules of decorum enforced by the department in the House Gallery for years, neither Mrs. Sheehan's manner of dress or initial conduct warranted law enforcement intervention," the statement said.

Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer also apologized to the wife of a House Republican who was told to leave the chamber during Bush's speech for wearing a shirt bearing words of support for U.S. troops.

Rep. Bill Young of Florida had condemned the treatment of his wife, Beverly. Young, who chairs the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, said on the House floor his wife was called "a demonstrator and a protester" for doing what Bush had asked of Americans: supporting U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq.

The Capitol Police statement said neither guest should have been confronted about her expressive T-shirt.

"The officers made a good faith, but mistaken, effort to enforce an old unwritten interpretation of the prohibitions about demonstrating in the Capitol. The policy and procedures were too vague," Gainer said. "The failure to adequately prepare the officers is mine."

Sheehan, who won wide attention with an anti-war vigil outside Bush's Texas ranch, was attending the speech as the guest of Rep. Lynn Woolsey, a California Democrat.

In a speech on the House floor, Woolsey said Sheehan wore a shirt that highlighted the number of dead U.S. soldiers in Iraq. "Since when is free speech conditional on whether you agree with the president of the United States?" Woolsey asked.

"How can we claim to be fighting on behalf of freedom around the world, making the world safe for freedom when we are smothering freedom here at home?" she said.

The Capitol Police department said it would ask the U.S. attorney's office not to pursue the unlawful conduct charge against Sheehan. The charge carries a maximum sentence of one year in prison.

Sheehan and other activists were arrested in September for protesting outside the White House without a permit, a misdemeanor that carriers a $50 fine.

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