Greenpeace says US threatens civil rights

Greenpeace has asked a judge in the United States to strike out a prosecution it faces under the little-used law of "sailor-mongering".

The environmental pressure group is in the dock after two activists boarded a ship in Miami, saying it was carrying illegally logged mahogany from the Amazon. The protesters tried to unfurl a banner reading "President Bush: Stop Illegal Logging", but were arrested by coastguards.

The protesters were sent to jail for a weekend for illegally boarding the vessel two miles offshore in April last year. But the organisation was then prosecuted under an 1872 law designed to stop criminals and prostitutes boarding vessels to lure sailors to shore.

The last time the law, which forbids the boarding of "any vessel about to arrive at the place of her destination, before her actual arrival", was used was more than 100 years ago.

If found guilty, the organisation said it faces "unprecedented supervision" by the US government. "The Justice Department wants to brand Greenpeace a criminal operation," said John Passacantando, the executive director of Greenpeace USA.

The veteran civil rights activist Julian Bond accused Attorney General John Ashcroft of trying to stifle legitimate protest. He said: "If John Ashcroft had done this in the Sixties, black Americans would not be voting today, eating at formerly all-white lunch counters or sitting on bus front seats. This is a government assault on time-honoured non-violent civil disobedience, as practised by Martin Luther King and thousands of other Americans."

Gerd Leipold, the head of Greenpeace International, added: "Seventy per cent of Brazilian mahogany is destined for the Americanmarket, most of it illegal. This is what Ashcroft should be stopping."

A pre-trial hearing took place at the US District Court in Florida yesterday, where lawyers for Greenpeace asked that the charge be dropped.

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