Submitted by Environmental Media Services
The criminal prosecution of an advocacy group for the free speech activities of its members - and the chilling effect on its activities - is unprecedented in the U.S. A Greenpeace motion to dismiss will be heard in Miami federal court tomorrow in the case, which charges Greenpeace with criminal conspiracy and unlawful boarding.
The federal charges were filed one year after two Greenpeace activists boarded a ship carrying illegal mahogany from the Amazon and attempted to unfurl a banner that said "President Bush: Stop Illegal Logging." In bringing the charges, the Justice Department dredged up an obscure 1872 law against "sailor-mongering" that legal experts believe has not been used since the 19th century.
"Instead of prosecuting the smugglers, the Justice Department wants to brand Greenpeace a criminal operation," said John Passacantando, executive director of Greenpeace USA. "Greenpeace will resist this overreaching by Mr. Ashcroft's Justice Department. We hope that all defenders of endangered freedoms, as well as protectors of endangered forests, will stand with us."
Longtime civil rights activist and chairman of the board of the NAACP, Julian Bond, discussed how such selective prosecution would have devastated the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
"If John Ashcroft had done this in the 1960s, black Americans would not be voting today, eating at formerly all-white lunch counters or sitting on bus front seats," Bond said. "This is a government assault on time-honored nonviolent civil disobedience as practiced by Martin Luther King and thousands of other Americans."
"Dissent has a long history in America. But this noble tradition has come under withering attack from the White House and the Justice Department of John Ashcroft," said People For the American Way Foundation President Ralph G. Neas. "Permitting the selective prosecution of a group like Greenpeace merely because the government disagrees with their point of view would irreparably harm the free speech rights of all Americans. Protecting the right to disagree with the government is what the First Amendment is all about. Indeed, it is profoundly patriotic to engage in peaceful dissent when you think the government is wrong."
Also speaking out against the Greenpeace prosecution was Joyce Miller, the director of the National Community Relations Division of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization with nearly a century-long history of working for peace and social justice.
"The AFSC, Greenpeace, and other advocacy organizations enable the American people to speak truth to power, through ideas and action, including civil disobedience - essential ingredients of a living democracy," Joyce Miller, American Friends Service Committee.
And the head of Greenpeace International urged the Justice Department to focus on the real criminals - in the illegal mahogany market.
"Seventy percent of Brazilian mahogany is destined for the U.S. market, most of it illegal," said Gerd Leipold, executive director of Greenpeace International. "This is what Ashcroft should be stopping."
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