- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 11, 2003

It’s been more than 100 years since the federal government prosecuted anyone for “sailor mongering,” the criminal act of luring sailors with promises of prostitution and liquor off of ships and into port.

But that’s the charge facing environmental group Greenpeace USA after members boarded a container ship near the Port of Miami without permission to protest illegal shipments of mahogany from the Amazon.

The two members of Greenpeace who actually boarded the vessel last year plus four others pleaded no contest and spent a weekend in jail, but the U.S. Attorney’s Office obtained a grand jury indictment against the entire organization in July on conspiracy charges.

The obscure 1872 law forbids the boarding of “any vessel about to arrive at the place of her destination, before her actual arrival” and carries a $10,000 fine.

If found guilty, the organization faces “unprecedented supervision” by the federal government of future activities and protests, which frequently target the Bush administration, said Nancy Hwa, Greenpeace spokeswoman. The group’s tax-exempt status is also at risk.

At a pretrial hearing today in the U.S. District Court Southern District of Florida, attorneys for Greenpeace will ask that the charge be dropped, arguing it sets a dangerous precedent that threatens the First Amendment right to peaceful protest. A trial is set for January.

“Instead of prosecuting the smugglers, the Justice Department wants to brand Greenpeace a criminal operation,” said John Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace USA.

Gerd Leipold, executive director of Greenpeace International, said Attorney General John Ashcroft should be targeting criminals who trade in the illegal mahogany market.

“Seventy percent of Brazilian mahogany is destined for the U.S. market, most of it illegal,” Mr. Leipold said. “This is what Ashcroft should be stopping.”

“Greenpeace will resist this overreaching by Mr. Ashcroft’s Justice Department,” Mr. Passacantando said.

The Justice Department referred comment to Matt Dates in the Florida U.S. Attorney’s Office, who did not return phone calls.

On April 12, 2002, the activists boarded the M/V APL Jade with a banner reading “President Bush: Stop illegal logging” but were arrested by the Coast Guard before they could unfurl their message. The activists wanted authorities to search the ship and seize the timber.

In a press conference yesterday, civil liberties and environmental groups sided with Greenpeace and called on the government to dismiss the suit.

“Permitting the selective prosecution of a group like Greenpeace merely because the government disagrees with their point of view would irreparably harm the free-speech rights of all Americans,” said Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way.

“Protecting the right to disagree with the government is what the First Amendment is all about. Indeed, it is profoundly patriotic to engage in peaceful dissent when you think the government is wrong,” Mr. Neas said.

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