GM protesters cleared for attack on 'wrong' crop

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The Independent Online

Eleven environmental activists were acquitted yesterday of damaging genetically modified maize, after it was revealed that they attacked the "wrong" crops.

Judge Kevin Gray, sitting at Harwich magistrates' court in Essex, told the defendants they had been cleared on a technicality. The six women and five men had all denied causing criminal damage to the genetically modified maize at Sunnymead Farm, Wivenhoe, Essex.

Half of a four-hectare field had been planted with conventional maize and the rest with GM forage maize, which was part of a trial by the seed company Aventis.

Judge Gray said the defendants had initially been charged with destroying GM maize but the Crown later accepted evidence that none of the experimental crop had been destroyed, and an amended charge had never been put before the accused.

The judge explained that the defendants had admitted their part in damaging the crops in the early hours of 20 July, but believed they were GM maize. Judge Gray said: "The Crown have not adduced any evidence in support of the allegation that these defendants have damaged or destroyed property belonging to Aventis Cropscience, which by definition was the GM maize, and that the charge stands to be dismissed in all cases."

He emphasised that it was an acquittal based on a point of law: "I have made no findings of fact in this judgment as to whether the crop destroyed was genetically modified or not."

A spokeswoman for the environment group Greenpeace said: "We are very pleased to see the outcome of the court case for these defendants. It adds to the growing list of defendants who have now been acquitted of taking direct action against GM crops."

Last year, Greenpeace's executive director and 27 other activists were cleared of causing criminal damage to a field of genetically modified maize, in a verdict that was hailed as having serious implications for the future of GM crop trials.

Lord Melchett and his fellow protesters were acquitted in a retrial at Norwich Crown Court, after claiming they had lawful excuse to attack the crop at a farm in Lyng, Norfolk, in July 1999.

Yesterday's case related to one of the 12 GM trials supported by the Government last year. Before the action carried out by the 11 protesters, 88 per cent of Wivenhoe residents had voted against the crop.

One of the defendants, Kenneth Butcher, 49, from Wivenhoe, told the court he was worried about sweetcorn that he was growing at his organic allotment being contaminated by GM pollen.

The other defendants, all from Essex, were Andrew Abbott, 32, of Colchester; Edith Butcher, 53, of Wivenhoe; Andrew Curtis, 24, of Colchester; David Isaacson, 21, of Colchester; Julie Moore, 43, from Earls Colne; Tracey Osben, 38, from St Osyth; Lynn Priest, 50, of Thorpe-le-Soken; Sarah Priest, 26, of St Osyth; Dean Scott, 31, from West Mersea; and Nicola Shillaker, 42, from Colchester.