Unprecedented Federal Prosecution of Greenpeace to Proceed with Jury Trial

July 6, 2010

Criminal Case Has Important Free Speech Implications

Washington -- A federal judge in Miami today granted Greenpeace's motion for a jury trial against unprecedented criminal charges, setting the stage for a courtroom battle that could have a significant impact on Americans' right to peaceful protest. In July 2003, the Justice Department charged Greenpeace under an obscure 1872 law against "sailormongering" for a 2002 protest. Judge Adalberto Jordan, agreeing with Greenpeace's assertion, found that "the indictment is a rare -- and maybe unprecedented -- prosecution of an advocacy group" for free speech-related conduct.

Judge Jordan postponed ruling on Greenpeace's motion to dismiss the indictment, but he warned the Justice Department that he might grant the motion after the presentation of facts at trial. 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."

Judge Jordan granted a jury as a matter of discretion, citing the unusual nature of the prosecution. "This case," he wrote, "may Ö signal a change in DOJ [Justice Department] policy." He also noted, "The prosecution has generated charges that the indictment of Greenpeace is politically motivated due to the organization's criticism of President Bush's environmental policies."

John Passacantando, Executive Director of Greenpeace, said, "We look forward to proving at trial that we are not guilty of the charges and that we were doing the right thing to protect the Amazon."

"We are gratified that the judge recognizes the significance of this case by granting our request to present the case before a jury," said Passacantando. "The unprecedented nature of this prosecution has the potential to transform an important aspect of our nation's legal and political life, significantly affecting our tradition of civil protest. 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. The Justice Department's prosecution of Greenpeace is unwarranted and politically motivated."

Still pending before Judge Jordan is Greenpeace's motion to obtain information on whether the Government is engaged in improper selective prosecution.

In April 2002, two Greenpeace activists climbed onto a commercial ship off the Florida coast with a banner that read, "President Bush, Stop Illegal Logging." The ship was carrying mahogany wood illegally exported from Brazil's Amazon rainforest. The individuals involved in the protest settled charges against them in 2002. However, rather than prosecuting the importers of the illegal mahogany, the Justice Department filed criminal charges against Greenpeace itself in July 2003.

Numerous leaders, legal scholars and groups have publicly criticized the prosecution; they include former Vice President Gore, Senator Patrick Leahy, Julian Bond and the NAACP, the ACLU of Florida, People for the American Way, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Miami Herald, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Denver Post.

View the Order on Pending Motions (pdf).

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