MIAMI – A U.S. judge on Wednesday acquitted environmental protection group Greenpeace on charges it conspired to break the law by sending activists aboard a freighter carrying illegally felled mahogany two years ago.
The politically charged case dusted off a law not used since 1890 to bring the first criminal prosecution by U.S. authorities of an advocacy group for civil disobedience.
U.S. District Judge Adalberto Jordan granted a Greenpeace motion to dismiss the charges after the prosecution rested on the third day of trial, ruling federal prosecutors had failed to prove their case, a Greenpeace lawyer said.
“We’re elated. This is a real victory for America’s tradition of free speech,” said John Passacantando, the executive director of Greenpeace U.S. “But our liberties are still in jeopardy, of course. The Bush administration is intent on stifling free speech.”
The case stemmed from a day in April 2002 when two Greenpeace activists climbed onto the APL Jade freighter just off Miami to hang a sign reading: “President Bush: Stop Illegal Logging.”
Two Greenpeace members were charged and pleaded guilty after the incident. Fifteen months later, prosecutors targeted the entire organization with a grand jury indictment.
Civil rights advocates said the obscurity of the law used to take Greenpeace to court suggested the case was revenge for Greenpeace’s criticism of President Bush’s environmental policies.
Passed in 1872 to prevent “sailor mongering,” the law has been gathering dust since it was last prosecuted in 1890.
Sailor mongering was common in the 19th century, when brothels sent whores onto ships before they had reached harbor to lure sailors ashore with booze and promises of warm beds.
Greenpeace was accused of illegally boarding the APL Jade, as the 964-foot (294-meter) vessel “was about to arrive at the place of her destination.” It also faces a charge of conspiring to commit that crime.
U.S. prosecutors argued Greenpeace conspired to break the law by recruiting “climbers” for the seaborne protest and by using a Greenpeace corporate credit card to rent a boat.
Greenpeace challenged the prosecution on the wording of the law, saying the ship was too far offshore when it was boarded to be considered “about to arrive” at its destination.
Greenpeace general counsel Tom Wetterer said the statute failed to define what “about to arrive” meant and the judge agreed it was too vague.
The boarding of the APL Jade was part of a global campaign to stop the illegal logging of mahogany in Brazil’s Amazon, a lucrative trade blamed for the destruction of vast swathes of rain forest.
Advocacy groups had said a conviction would be a blow to Brazilian efforts to win more backing for its fight against the illegal mahogany trade from the United States, the biggest market for a wood so valuable it boasts fatter profit margins than cocaine.
05/21/2004 Jim Loney, planetark.com