US judge throws out case against Greenpeace activists

Greenpeace was celebrating an unexpected victory against the Bush administration yesterday after the latest attempt to press criminal charges against the organisation over its civil disobedience tactics was summarily thrown out of court by a federal judge in Florida.

The Justice Department, which has made no secret of its desire to come down hard on activists who stage protests at military bases, ports and other sensitive security locations, had attempted to prosecute Greenpeace under an obscure 19th-century maritime law intended to prevent prostitutes soliciting business from passing ships.

The case concerned a protest in April 2002 in which two activists left the port of Miami-Dade in a rubber dinghy and boarded a ship which was carrying mahogany from the Brazilian rainforest. Six Greenpeace members were charged with misdemeanours. A year later the government convened a grand jury to press criminal conspiracy charges against Greenpeace under a 1872 statute against "sailor-mongering".

Civil liberties groups and prominent politicians, including the former vice-president Al Gore, deplored the prosecution as an infringement of Greenpeace's right to free speech, but the case moved to trial regardless. Then, to everyone's surprise, Judge Adalberto Jordan threw out the case on the second day - a highly unusual occurrence when a jury has been empanelled and witnesses have begun testifying. Since the jury never got to consider the case, the government does not have the right to appeal.

Judge Jordan did not say the charges were frivolous but took refuge in a literal interpretation of the law. Since the Greenpeace action took place six miles off shore, he said, the mahogany-carrying ship APL Jade could not be said to be "about to arrive" as the sailor-mongering statute specifies. However, he warned Greenpeace that the law remained on the books and might be a threat to the organisation in future.

While Greenpeace activists celebrated, the group's North American executive director, John Passacantando, issued a statement. "America's tradition of free speech won a victory today but our liberties are still not safe," he said. "The Bush administration and its allies seem bent on stifling our tradition of civil protest, a tradition that has made this country stronger throughout its history."

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