Skip to comments.Government dusts off 1800s law in targeting environmental group Greenpeace
Posted on 01/23/2004 5:45:34 PM PST by optimistically_conservative
MIAMI -- When prosecutors brought charges against Greenpeace for protesting a shipment of Amazon mahogany, they dusted off a 19th century federal law enacted to stop pimps from clambering aboard ships entering port.
Environmentalists call the charges a heavy-handed attempt to stifle free speech and say the government is retaliating against Greenpeace for previous in-your-face protests against the Bush administration.
The federal government has never successfully prosecuted an entire activist organization on criminal charges over its protest methods -- not Operation Rescue, not the NAACP, not even the Ku Klux Klan.
"It's an incredible abuse of power, and this is nothing short of political retribution," said Sierra Club spokesman Eric Antebi. "We think this sets a horrible precedent for political intimidation of public interest groups."
Environmentalists want a judge to throw out the indictment and release Justice Department records on why charges were brought under an 1872 law that had not even been used since the 1800s. The judge is expected to rule sometime early this year on the requests by Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, the American Civil Liberties Union and other supporters.
Defending the prosecution in court last month, Assistant U.S. Attorney Cameron Elliot insisted, "There is no evidence that the government has discriminated against Greenpeace because of its political views."
The group's vocal opposition to the federal government "makes it no different from thousands of other political advocacy groups," he said.
The mahogany protest came as the 965-foot APL Jade approached Miami Beach on April 12, 2002. Two Greenpeace protesters jumped aboard the ship more than three miles from shore, wearing shirts emblazoned "Greenpeace illegal forest crime unit" and carrying a banner reading "President Bush, Stop Illegal Logging." The ship's crew kept them from unfurling the banner.
Six activists were arrested on federal misdemeanor charges, and the indictment against the organization based on the old law came 15 months later.
The law was enacted to keep brothel operators from infiltrating ships "about to" dock. Pimps and others from brothels would row out to the vessels and persuade the sailors to jump ship with them or come over after docking. The sailors were then wined, dined and separated from their money.
Greenpeace maintains a ship moving at 10 mph three miles at sea is not covered by the "about to" dock requirement. The prosecutor retorted that an 1890 conviction was based on a boarding at the mouth of Oregon's Columbia River 50 miles from its dock in Portland. In the only other conviction on record, a New York judge who examined the law the year it was enacted called its language "inartistic and obscure."
One reason Greenpeace is fighting so hard is the potential punishment: a $20,000 fine and five years' probation, which could hinder the organization's use of civil disobedience as a protest tactic and could potentially open Greenpeace finances, operations, support and membership to government inspection.
"For an advocacy organization dedicated to passionate dissent, that could be a crippling inhibition," the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a brief in support of Greenpeace.
The nonprofit Greenpeace also fears the government will revoke its tax-exempt status if it is convicted.
Greenpeace, perhaps best known for sailing its boats into restricted waters and interfering with whaling ships and other vessels on the open seas, has been bothersome to President Bush since shortly after his inauguration, when members put up a banner near his Texas ranch calling him the "toxic Texan."
Greenpeace claims its ship protest called attention to the crime of big leaf mahogany logging in the Brazilian Amazon and the Bush administration's failure to enforce an import ban contained in an international treaty. Greenpeace contends roads built by mahogany loggers are the root cause of Amazon deforestation.
Gee, now maybe you know how abortion protestors felt being charged as racketeers under RICO.
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