U.S. Puts Right to Protest at Risk
The Guardian (UK)
October 31, 2003
Greenpeace is being taken to court by the US government because of its action against the illegal importation of mahogany. Its lawyers says it is the first time an entire organisation has been criminally prosecuted for the activities of two members.
The prosecution arises from the activity in April last year of two Greenpeace members who boarded a vessel off the coast of Miami allegedly carrying mahogany from Brazil to the US and hoisted a banner saying: "President Bush, Stop Illegal Logging."
They were accompanied by journalists who recorded the event. Both protesters and 12 other Greenpeace activists in support vessels were arrested and jailed over the weekend. Six were charged with misdemeanours, and pleaded guilty.
Normally that would have been an end of the matter, a familiar event for Greenpeace, whose activists are regularly arrested and usually fined or sentenced to short jail terms. But this time the government has decided to prosecute the organisation as a whole. A rarely used law forbidding the unauthorised boarding of vessels, introduced in the 19th century to prevent boarding-house owners leaping on to docking ships to get clients, is being employed. Lawyers say that a conviction could result in conditions being attached to Greenpeace activities which would lead to punitive fines each time an "illegal" activity was undertaken in its name.
Greenpeace is due in court next month, and yesterday it held a press conference in Miami to protest against the charges.
The prosecution alleges that the boarding was carried out "under the erroneous belief" that the ship was carrying mahogany. Greenpeace says it had marked the mahogany, but the authorities had declined to seize it.
John Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace USA, said the prosecution could damage protest action.
"The government's action is unprecedented - prosecuting an entire organisation for the expressive activities of its supporters," he said. If it succeeded, he said: "Non-violent civil protest - an essential tradition from colonial times to the modern civil rights movement - may become yet another casualty of [the attorney general] John Ashcroft's attack on civil liberties.
"Two hundred and thirty years ago American protesters boarded ships over objectionable cargo," he said. "It was called the Boston Tea Party, and it was critical to focusing colonists' objections to British rule... If such limited protests against commercial ships are banned, then acts of protest in malls, universities and public plazas will be next." The boarding was part of a long-running Greenpeace campaign against the illegal logging and export of mahogany, one tree of which, it says, can be turned into furniture worth $130,000 (£76,500) in the US.
It is an officially endangered species and is logged from the indigenous lands in the state of Para, resulting in widespread deforestation. Greenpeace has worked with the Brazilian government against the trade.
Greenpeace is concerned that if the prosecution succeeds it will have a chilling effect on any forms of direct action taken by its 250,000 US members.
The authorities in Miami have made it clear that Greenpeace is not welcome. They refused to let its ship, Esperanza, which had sailed from Vancouver, enter the port this week on the grounds that it was a security risk.
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