Judge dismisses Ashcroft attempt to shut down Greenpeace

Feature story - 19 May, 2004
In a stunning setback to the Bush administration's attempt to shut down Greenpeace, a Federal Judge in Miami has dismissed the government's case against us for exposing illegal mahogany shipments.

The Bush administration has a problem with dissent.

Judge Adalberto Jordan cited insufficient evidence in dismissing the case. Upon granting a jury trial last month, he expressed doubts about the Justice Department's ability to prevail against Greenpeace's claim that the criminal statute involved is unfairly vague. "It is not a good sign," he wrote, "when the government resorts to defining a phrase by repeating the phrase itself."

The prosecution was widely criticized as an attempt to silence Greenpeace. Al Gore called the case "highly disturbing" and Senator Patrick Leahy warned that a successful prosecution would "have a chilling effect on free speech and activism of all kinds."

This was the first time that an entire organisation faced prosecution by the US government for free-speech related activities. The case arose from an action in February 2002, when Greenpeace volunteers carried out a peaceful protest against a cargo ship which was transporting illegal mahogany from the Brazilian Amazon.

Unable to find a law against protecting the environment, the US government had to improvise. The best they could come up with was an obscure 1872 law against "sailor mongering." The bizarre statute was originally designed to discourage owners of inns and brothels from boarding ships as they were about to enter port, in order to lure the sailors into their establishments. It has only been used twice in its 132-year history.

Greenpeace USA Executive Director John Passacantando stated "The conduct for which the Ashcroft Justice Department seeks to prosecute Greenpeace was, essentially, whistle-blowing -- publicly exposing and preventing violations of U.S. law prohibiting the importation of illegally harvested mahogany wood."

Speaking from the Miami Federal Courthouse, Passacantando said that "America's tradition of free speech won a victory today, 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."

Over 100,000 people world-wide sent protest messages to George Bush and US Attorney General John Ashcroft demanding that the case be dropped.

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