Bush Administration Attack on Peaceful Protest Goes to Trial Today

May 17, 2004

An unprecedented case that could stifle free speech and set the civil liberties back decades goes to trial today in federal district court in Miami, pitting the Bush administration against the nonviolent environmental activist group, Greenpeace.

The case stems from a peaceful protest staged two years ago, when two Greenpeace activists boarded a commercial ship off the coast of Florida that was delivering 70 tons of illegally harvested mahogany from a Brazilian rainforest.

The activists were detained before they could unfurl a banner that read, "President Bush, Stop Illegal Logging." The protest was part of an ongoing campaign -- in cooperation with the government of Brazil -- to bring international attention to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. Shortly after the protest, a global treaty strengthening international protections for mahogany was signed.[1]

In keeping with a longstanding Greenpeace tradition, the two activists took responsibility for their actions by pleading guilty and serving time for the misdemeanor charges that stemmed from the ship-boarding incident.

But then, some 15 months after the protest, the Bush administration dredged up a long-forgotten 1872 "sailor-mongering" statute, enacted to prevent houses of ill repute from luring sailors off ships entering port, and brought charges against Greenpeace itself for authorizing the April 2002 protest.

"This is the first time in U.S. history that the Government has prosecuted an organization for the free speech-related activities of its supporters," wrote John Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace USA, in a letter to supporters. "The stakes are extremely high – not only for the continued viability of Greenpeace but also for all Americans who value our tradition of free speech, peaceful protest, and civil disobedience, from the Boston Tea Party to Martin Luther King and beyond."

If the U.S. Justice Department prevails, Greenpeace could be fined up to $20,000 and its tax-exempt status could be in jeopardy. The organization’s future activities could also be subjected to intense government scrutiny.[2]

"If John Ashcroft had done this in the 1960s, black Americans would not be voting today, eating at formerly all-white lunch counters or sitting on bus front seats," NAACP Chair Julian Bond told BushGreenwatch last December. "This is a government assault on time-honored nonviolent civil disobedience as practiced by Martin Luther King and thousands of other Americans."[3]

The last court decision stemming from the "sailor-mongering" law dates back to 1890. U.S. District Judge Adalberto Jordan, who will hear the case, granted a Greenpeace motion requesting a jury trial on the grounds that "the indictment is a rare – and maybe unprecedented – prosecution of an advocacy group" for exercising its right to free speech.[4]

Although the importation of illegally harvested mahogany violates both U.S. law and an international treaty, the Ashcroft Justice Department has taken no action against the company that imported the illegal mahogany.

Tell Ashcroft to go after illegal loggers, not Greenpeace.

[1] Background memo from Greenpeace USA.
[2] Ibid.
[3] BushGreenwatch, Dec. 10, 2003.
[4] Greenpeace memo, op. cit.

Source: http://www.bushgreenwatch.org/mt_archives/000119.php


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