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Duluth peace community welcomes home protester released from prison

Amy Wilcox of Duluth hugs Greg Boertje-Obed during a welcome home party at Duluth Congregational Church on Friday night. He was one of the three protesters recently released after a federal appeals court overturned his sabotage conviction for breaking into the Y-12 nuclear site in Tennessee. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Greg Boertje-Obed was welcomed home to Duluth on Friday with hugs from friends who have known him for decades. When he said he was home early, a friend replied that he was home three years late.

The gathering of family and friends at Duluth Congregational Church celebrated Boertje-Obed arriving home from federal prison in Leavenworth, Kan., where he had been in the middle of serving a 62-month sentence after he and two other protesters broke into a nuclear weapons plant in Tennessee in 2012.

As a song played that was sung in the evenings during Boertje-Obed's 2013 trial, the voices of 50 people came together to sing the chorus, "How beautiful upon the mountain are the steps of those who walk in peace."

His wife, Michele Naar-Obed, said, "It's very nice to have him home."

Along with Sister Megan Rice of Nevada and Michael Walli of Michigan, Boertje-Obed was convicted in 2013 and sentenced in 2014 on charges of sabotage and damaging federal property stemming from the 2012 break-in at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn. The trio of peace activists, part of the movement Transform Now Plowshares, cut fences to reach the weapons-grade uranium storage facility, where they painted anti-nuclear slogans and splattered human blood.

A federal appeals court earlier this month overturned the three protesters' sabotage convictions, saying they lacked the intent necessary to violate the federal Sabotage Act and endanger national security. The court also threw out their sentences on the charges of damaging federal property — though it allowed those convictions to stand — and ordered the three released pending their resentencing hearing.

Boertje-Obed's release was abrupt; he said Friday that he didn't know he was going to be released until a guard summoned him and told him he was being freed.

Boertje-Obed said he's filled with gratitude for people who supported and prayed for him, including members of Duluth's Veterans for Peace and Grandmothers for Peace groups. While he was in prison, Duluth residents wrote to him, sent him books and kept him up on their lives in Duluth.

"I'm glad Duluth has a peace community," he said.

John Pegg of Veterans for Peace said he's glad to see Boertje-Obed home. His release was an instance of people in authority understanding that the protesters didn't have any ill intent in the break-in, he said.

Jan Provost, a member of Grandmothers for Peace, said Boertje-Obed and his wife are a "fabulous couple." She's known them for many years and has taken part in protests with them. She said Duluth's peace community is "just like family."

"We were just praying for them," she said.

Boertje-Obed said Friday that he's also grateful for his attorneys.

"They spent thousands of hours doing research, writing up and arguing," he said.

The wedding vows Boertje-Obed and his wife said 22 years ago included supporting each other when separated. They said that prior to his trial, when they knew they might be separated for a long time, they renewed their vows on their 20th anniversary at Duluth's McCabe Renewal Center. They were surrounded by the community that supported them throughout the trial and prison sentence, Naar-Obed said.

Boertje-Obed said his protests are fueled by his faith. He said he feels that his actions fulfill the biblical chapter in Isaiah that says swords should be turned into plowshares and nations will no longer take up arms against each other.

"I believe God or the Spirit are leading people to take these stands," he said of peace protests.

He followed his conscience and engaged in a "nonviolent symbolic action," he said. In federal district court, he said, he wasn't able to speak about his moral and religious beliefs. But he said the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals understood what the protesters were trying to say, and that the trio wasn't a threat to national security.

Prosecutors have until June 22 to appeal the court's decision.

Prosecutors have said they will follow sentencing guidelines during the resentencing hearing for the charges of damaging government property, meaning Boertje-Obed and his fellow protesters already have served more time than their new sentences would require.