Mary Braun, the last member of the once notorious Sons of Freedom Doukhobors to practise the sect's extreme ways of protest, was given a stiff, six-year prison term for arson yesterday.
Some believe the punishment amounts to a death sentence for the frail, 81-year-old woman.
"I have grave concerns for her health," defence lawyer Ken Wyllie said, noting Ms. Braun's past practice of holding lengthy hunger strikes while in prison.
"Fasting certainly has a greater impact at her age. I get the sense she feels that this is the final chapter of her resistance."
Ms. Braun was sentenced for setting fire to a satellite building of Selkirk community college last August, causing $350,000 damage. She has 14 previous convictions for arson and fire-related mischief.
During the 1950s and 1960s, members of the radical Sons of Freedom Doukhobors staged a series of dynamite and arson attacks throughout the Kootenay region of the British Columbia interior to protest against government interference in their lives and the need for spiritual purity in the world. Public nudity also played a major part in their protests.
B.C. Supreme Court Justice Mark McEwan said jail was the only way to protect the public from the threat of future arson attacks by Ms. Braun. Past sentences and probation orders have not had any deterrent or rehabilitative effect, he said.
In addition to the jail sentence, Judge McEwan ordered Ms. Braun to pay $200,000 in compensation to Selkirk community college and to the local organization that owns the gutted building.
As she has in previous court appearances, Ms. Braun disrobed before taking her place in the prisoner's box, sitting naked except for a heavy blanket draped over her shoulders.
After sentence was passed, Ms. Braun told a small group of supporters in the courtroom: "Don't worry. Everything is God's will."
Afterwards, supporter Sam Donkin echoed Mr. Wyllie's concern that Ms. Braun may die in jail.
"I think it was a very, very harsh sentence for an 81-year-old lady. She was no threat to the public," said Mr. Donkin, 72. "I'm afraid that she'll die in there. I think to her that would be an honour. She feels she is sacrificing herself on behalf of world peace and antimaterialism."
Ms. Braun has already staged a 16-day hunger strike that ended only last weekend when the court agreed to sentence her this week, a month earlier than scheduled.
Over time most so-called Freedomites abandoned the old ways of protest, leaving only a few women who continued to set fires, disrobe and fast.
"I believe Mary Braun is the last. I certainly hope so," said Mr. Donkin, a former Freedomite who renounces illegal protests but still embraces the sect's spiritual, antimaterialist message.
"Mary believes the world is in a very sad situation and she feels she has to awaken the world to what is happening, that children are being killed by bombs. It is her way."
Mr. Wyllie said his argument that Ms. Braun should be given a conditional sentence with no time in jail was made more difficult by her refusal to sign a statement promising not to repeat her arson offence.
"She did say she was prepared to turn herself in voluntarily if she felt she might do it again."
He described his client as "a very mild, meek and submissive individual with quite strong pacifist beliefs. She believes her actions are symbolic protests against the materialism of our society."
Mr. Wyllie said Ms. Braun's sentence will not be appealed. She is expected to be transferred from Nelson city jail, where a police officer says she is eating four meals a day, to the province's lower mainland prison for women on Monday.