A federal grand jury has charged 15 Greenpeace activists and two foreign journalists arrested in a protest of the Star Wars program last month with felonies in the disruption of the Pentagon's antimissile defense test at the Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc, Calif. Their arraignment is scheduled for Monday in a Los Angeles federal court.
The defendants are six Americans, two Germans, two Britons, two Australians, one Indian, one Canadian and one Swede. They are charged with conspiracy to violate a safety zone. A lesser count of trespassing and one count of failure to obey an order have also been brought against most of the defendants.
A Spanish videographer with a United States green card and a British photographer, both freelance journalists, face similar charges.
The charges, made recently, carry a maximum sentence of more than 11 years in prison and fines totaling $505,000 and are among the stiffest ever handed down to nonviolent protesters arrested in conjunction with antimissile defense rallies at the air base, antimissile defense campaigners said.
Greenpeace has not disputed the presence of protesters in restricted areas during last month's test, when activists delayed the launching by 40 minutes after riding inflatable rafts into the test site's safety zone in the Pacific Ocean beneath the rocket's flight path. But the group contends the charges are unduly harsh.
"This is the first time that people engaging in nonviolent protest have been charged with a felony for simply bearing witness at Vandenberg Air Force Base," said Katya Komisaruk, a lawyer representing the defendants.
In recent years, the military has conducted many missile defense operations at the base to test its ability to shoot down an intercontinental missile, including a similar missile launching in July 2000.
In response, protesters have increased their activities. As a result, more than 50 arrests were made at protests at the base from October 2000 through May of this year, said Carah Ong, the director of research and publication at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, which tracks protests at Vandenberg.
But in previous cases, charges amounted to little more than misdemeanor trespassing, which carries a maximum sentence of six months, Ms. Ong said.
Prosecutors maintain the recent charges reflect the severity of the crimes.
"This is a safety issue," said Tom Mrozek, a spokesman for the United States attorney's office in Los Angeles, which is prosecuting the case. "The grand jury made a determination using a probable cause standard that these were the appropriate charges to be made in this case," Mr. Mrozek said.
No plea arrangement has been considered, Mr. Mrozek said.
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company