- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 21, 2004

MIAMI - When prosecutors brought charges against Greenpeace for protesting a shipment of Amazon mahogany, they dusted off a 19th-century federal law enacted to stop pimps from clambering aboard ships entering port.

Environmentalists call the charges a heavy-handed attempt to stifle free speech and say the government is retaliating against Greenpeace for previous in-your-face protests against the Bush administration.

The federal government has never successfully prosecuted an entire activist organization on criminal charges over its protest methods.

“It’s an incredible abuse of power, and this is nothing short of political retribution,” said Sierra Club spokesman Eric Antebi. “We think this sets a horrible precedent for political intimidation of public interest groups.”

Environmentalists want a judge to throw out the indictment and release Justice Department records on why charges were brought under an 1872 law that had not been used in more than a century. The judge is expected to rule sometime early this year on the requests by Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, the American Civil Liberties Union and other supporters.

Defending the prosecution in court last month, Assistant U.S. Attorney Cameron Elliot said, “There is no evidence that the government has discriminated against Greenpeace because of its political views.”

The group’s vocal opposition to the federal government “makes it no different from thousands of other political advocacy groups,” he said.

The mahogany protest came as the 965-foot APL Jade approached Miami Beach on April 12, 2002. Two Greenpeace protesters jumped aboard the ship more than three miles from shore, wearing shirts emblazoned “Greenpeace illegal forest crime unit” and carrying a banner reading “President Bush, Stop Illegal Logging.” The ship’s crew kept them from unfurling the banner.

Six activists were arrested on federal misdemeanor charges, and the indictment against the organization based on the old law came 15 months later.

The law was enacted to keep brothel operators from infiltrating ships “about to” moor. Pimps would row out to the vessels and persuade the sailors to jump ship with them or come over after mooring.

Greenpeace maintains a ship moving at 10 mph three miles at sea is not covered by the “about to” moor requirement. The prosecutor retorted that an 1890 conviction was based on a boarding at the mouth of Oregon’s Columbia River 50 miles from its pier in Portland. In the only other conviction on record, a New York judge who examined the law the year it was enacted called its language “inartistic and obscure.”

One reason Greenpeace is fighting so hard is the potential punishment: a $20,000 fine and five years’ probation. A conviction could potentially open Greenpeace finances, operations, support and membership to government inspection.

“For an advocacy organization dedicated to passionate dissent, that could be a crippling inhibition,” the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a brief in support of Greenpeace.

The nonprofit Greenpeace organization also fears the government will revoke its tax-exempt status with a conviction.

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