Jury trial awarded in Bush vs. Greenpeace

Feature story - 15 April, 2004
A US federal judge in Miami today granted our motion for a jury trial against unprecedented criminal charges, setting the stage for a courtroom battle that could have a significant impact on Americans' rights 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.

The Bush administration's selective prosecution of Greenpeace is an unprecedented threat to civil liberties in America.

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 ... 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 USA, 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."

"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 were charged 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 National Resources Defense Council, the Miami Herald, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Denver Post.

More information

More background (on the Greenpeace USA website).

New York Times: "Typical Greenpeace Protest Leads to Unusual Prosecution."

"The extraordinary effort made to find and use this obscure law strongly suggests a campaign of selective prosecution - the greatest scourge of the First Amendment."

--George Washington University Law Professor Jonathan Turley, special to the Los Angeles Times in Arbiter Online

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Tell the US Government to prosecute illegal loggers, not Greenpeace.