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Saturday, 16 December, 2000, 00:48 GMT
New image for US 'torture school'
US Army Secretary Louis Caldera
Army Secretary Louis Caldera defends the school's record
A controversial US military school accused of being a training ground for dictators, torturers and assassins has closed its doors.

Human rights campaigners say the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia is little more than an academy for Latin American dictators and human rights violators.

Do you truly believe that a school of our armed forces on our soil would not reflect out deepest held values?

Louis Caldera
Its former alumni include the former military ruler of Panama, Manuel Noriega, General Leopoldo Galtieri of Argentina, and the current Bolivian president, Hugo Banzer.

But the closure is only temporary. The school will re-open next month with a new name and a new curriculum, which will include peacekeeping and disaster relief.

Unsavoury past

From January, the school will be known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Co-operation. Officials say this is to reflect the changed realities of the new century.

Former Argentinian military ruler General Galtieri
Former Argentinian ruler General Galtieri, Fort Benning graduate
But opponents say a new name will not alter the school's unsavoury past.

First established 54 years ago, it has taught more than 60,000 soldiers from across the region.

Aside from its more notable graduates, scores of other former students are accused of torturing political prisoners, leading death squads and taking part in other human rights violations.

Record defended

Despite these charges, speaking on the eve of the school's closure, US army Secretary Louis Caldera accused the school's critics or misrepresenting its aims and objectives.

Fort Benning graduates
Manuel Noriega
Leopoldo Galtieri
Raoul Cedras
Hugo Banzer
Roberto D'Aubisson
"Some of you could not even abide the name of this School of the Americas itself, and no amount of reform could ever redeem it," he said.

But he defended the school's record and underlined its commitment to human rights.

"Do you truly believe that an American school of our armed forces on our soil would not reflect out deepest held values?" he asked.

Critics unimpressed

However, the move has not impressed critics, who say the change is merely a smoke and mirrors campaign by the Pentagon to give the School a new image.

Michael Douglas
Michael Douglas: High profile critic of the school
"This movement has not been fooled by the name change," said Roy Bourgeois, founder of the School of America's watch activist group.

"This is not a human rights academy, this is a military school where soldiers learn combat," he added.

Campaigners say they will continue to fight until the school closes its doors for good.

In recent years, Fort Benning has become a focal point for opposition to United States military intervention in Latin America during the Cold War.

Last month thousands of demonstrators swarmed onto the school grounds in what has become an annual protest by campaigners including the Hollywood actor, Michael Douglas.

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