WASHINGTON - In a rebuke to the U.S. Justice Department, a federal judge in Miami Wednesday threw out a criminal case against the environmental-activist group, Greenpeace, which it had based on an obscure 1872 law against "sailormongering" that it applied to a protest against a ship carrying 70 tons of illegally cut mahogany.
U.S. District Judge Adalberto Jordan acquitted the group at the end of the prosecution's case, midway through the third day of the jury trial. He said the prosecution had failed to provide enough evidence for the case to go to the jury.
"America's tradition of free speech won a victory today," said John Passacantando, Greenpeace's executive director, but our liberties are still not safe. The Bush administration and its allies seem bent on stifling our tradition of civil protest, a tradition that has made our country stronger throughout our history."
The case, which marked the first time a non-governmental organization (NGO) had been indicted by the federal government for the protest activities of its members, drew considerable national and even international attention. Among others, former Vice President Al Gore and Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy were among a number of prominent individuals and organizations that protested the prosecution.
It was triggered by an April, 2002, protest in which two volunteers from a Greenpeace vessel boarded the APL Jade cargo ship, which was carrying the mahogany from Brazil toward the Port of Miami.
Just a few months before, President George W. Bush himself publicly committed Washington to help developing countries prevent illegal logging of mahogany, and the two activists who boarded the ship unfurled a banner that read, "President Bush, Stop Illegal Logging." The two activists, as well as the four others in the Greenpeace boat, were arrested when they came into port, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, and spent a weekend in jail.
Fifteen months later, however, the Justice Department filed an indictment in Miami against Greenpeace itself under the 1872 law, which had last been used in 1890.
The law was originally intended to keep houses of prostitution and rum shops from luring sailors on incoming ships to shore with promises of women and grog, and the judge decided the case on a technicality. As the boarding took place about six miles from port, according to the Jordan, it did not meet the statutory requirement that it was "about to arrive," suggesting that he might have ruled differently on the motion to dismiss had the boat been much closer when the protest occurred. "Caveat emptor," he warned the defendant in reference to future protests.
But Passacantando and other activists were unrepentant. "Greenpeace will never let up in its defense of our planet," he said, while Greenpeace's general counsel, Tom Wetterer, said the ruling was "a message that the government can't just throw any charge at an organization to silence (it)."
Howard Simon, director of the Florida branch of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) insisted that "the fact (that the prosecutors) get bounced out of court within two and a half days, does that indicate at all that the case was ill-conceived from the start?"
Still, the case has been taken very seriously among progressive NGOs that have been increasingly under attack by both the administration and various groups that are closely allied with it. For example, the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Federal Society for Law and Public Policy Studies launched a new website, www.ngowatch.org, last June to monitor the activities and internal structure of more than 100 international NGOs, including Greenpeace, that they accuse of pursuing a "globalist agenda" at the expense of U.S. sovereignty or national interest.
"There is this falsehood that (these NGOs) are somehow from the grassroots," said Danielle Pletka, an AEI vice president at a Federalist Society meeting last November. "That is an untruth."
Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and other administration officials, particularly former Federalist Society members around Attorney General John Ashcroft, have also spoken out strongly against certain NGOs that they consider to be working against the administration's policies.
The Justice Department had insisted that the Greenpeace prosecution was not politically motivated but was undertaken only to prevent people from illegally attempting to board ships near the Port or threaten Port security. The Port of Miami denied berthing space for Greenpeace boats after the indictment was filed.
But NGO supporters of Greenpeace doubted that explanation.
"I'm not naive enough to think the government will cease its efforts to suppress dissent," said the ACLU's Simon, while Mitch Bernard, litigation director of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, that "the government is full of cards it can play if it wants to continue to stifle dissent. Unfortunately, I don't see any reason for believing this is the end. Nonprofit groups and advocates need to be on their guard for this sort of thing."
As to the original purpose of the protest, a Brazilian parliamentarian who has worked to stop illegal logging and export of mahogany, Hamilton Cesar, was on hand in Miami to serve as a defense witness. He told the Miami Herald that the acquittal "will help us fight in Brazil against illegal activities."
Similarly, Passacantando told reporters that his group was still waiting for Bush to fulfill his pledge to stop imports of the illegally cut wood.
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