Greenpeace 'Star Wars' protesters avoid prison

Andrew Gumbel
Wednesday 09 January 2002 01:00

Seventeen Greenpeace activists who were arrested last summer during a protest against the United States "Star Wars" missile defence system accepted a plea bargain that will keep most, if not all, of them out of jail.

The agreement, under which they pleaded guilty to a minor trespassing charge, followed months of uncertainty over the fate of the 17, including three Britons. They had initially faced serious felony charges with the prospect of several years behind bars.

They were arrested when they used inflatable boats to float into a restricted zone off Vandenberg United States Air Force base in central California last July, delaying the launch of a test missile and drawing attention to their opposition to "Star Wars", which Greenpeace believes will destabilise the world rather than improve its security.

The case attracted attention because of the perceived harshness of the defendants' treatment, prompting accusations that the United States was not abiding by its commitment to the right to peaceful dissent.

In exchange for the plea of guilty to a charge of conspiracy to enter a military property knowingly without permission, the government dropped all other charges and said it would not seek individual fines or imprisonment for any of the defendants unless they had criminal records.

Sentencing will take place in two phases, with the majority of the 17 expected to receive three years' probation but no other sanction on 18 January, and a small number ordered to await a full sentencing hearing on 15 April.

Greenpeace Inc and the Greenpeace Fund, two arms of Greenpeace's American operation, signed a separate document agreeing to pay $150,000 (£105,000) in investigation costs and fines. The organisation also agreed to an injunction stopping activists trespassing on military bases either in the United States or on the Marshall Islands in the Pacific. The fine for violating the injunction would be $500,000.

Both sides claimed victory, with the government side satisfied it had obtained a deterrent against future actions and Greenpeace's lawyers relieved the more serious charges had at last been dropped.

"We believe this case never warranted jail time," said the defence lawyer, Aaron Dyer. "We believe we can convince the court that the government used a very heavy-handed approach ... and that none of the defendants should serve any additional time in custody."

John Passacantando, the director of Greenpeace USA, added: "It's a day when we can all be proud of these defendants." Asked whether the heavy costs of the case could really be described as a victory, he said: "We engage in peaceful protest and at times that does incur legal costs."

The 17 included two journalists, the British photographer Steve Morgan and the Spanish video cameraman Jorge Torres. Co-defendants were two other Britons, Bill Nandris and John Wills, as well as protesters from Germany, Austria, Sweden, India, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States.

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