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U.S. Invokes Obscure 19th Century Law To Hassle Greenpeace

by Miriam Kagan

Rightwing Think Tank Attacks Independent Orgs
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- Tensions are rising between the U.S. and Greenpeace USA, one of the nation's largest environmental groups.

On Monday, October 27, a coast guard ship carrying over 20 officials from various government agencies met the Greenpeace ship M.V. Esperanza as it prepared to drop anchor near the port of Miami in Florida.

As a marine safety helicopter and a coast guard jet circled overhead, port officials detained the ship's crew for more than three hours.

It was the latest development in a battle between Greenpeace and the administration that began last summer when the Justice Department filed criminal charges against the group for boarding a ship off the Miami coast that the activists said carried illegal mahogany.

The Esperanza was set to anchor offshore after Port of Miami authorities had earlier denied it docking rights, saying the boat posed a danger, particularly in light of upcoming meetings on the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) there.

Greenpeace says its activists boarded the APL Jade in April 2002 to call attention to the export of illegal mahogany from the Amazon and to provoke U.S. authorities to seize the shipment.

According to the group, despite a 2002 speech in which President George W. Bush committed Washington to help developing nations combat illegal logging, the United States continued to receive shipments of Brazilian mahogany even after an export moratorium was imposed.

Authorities used an obscure 1872 law, aimed at preventing boarding-house owners from luring sailors to their establishments, to charge Greenpeace.

"This prosecution is unprecedented in American history. Never before has our government criminally prosecuted an entire organization for the free speech activities of its supporters," said Greenpeace USA Director John Passacantando.

The group contends the prosecution is an attempt by the Justice Department, particularly by Attorney General John Ashcroft, to curtail the activities of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that might criticize government policies.

Such groups have been very critical of the administration's environmental record.

Most recently, they protested the nomination of Mike Leavitt, former governor of New Mexico, to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

NGOs claimed that Leavitt, who was confirmed in the position Tuesday, had a poor environmental record and would enable the administration to further roll back environmental regulations.

"John Ashcroft is just another McCarthy [the former U.S. Senator who instigated an anti-Communist manhunt in the 1950s during the Cold War], who is going to burn out as fast as he came in," Passacantando told IPS last week.

According to a copy of the grand jury's indictment against Greenpeace for boarding the vessel, the group was charged with a misdemeanor offense that carries a maximum penalty of five years' probation and a $10,000 fine.

Passacantando warned that the charge affects the entire NGO community. "If this prosecution succeeds, then peaceful protest ... may become yet another casualty of Attorney General Ashcroft's attack on civil liberties."

Despite several calls to their offices, DOJ officials were unavailable for comment.

While Passacantando claimed to be "wonderfully surprised at how many NGOs have viewed this incident as an attack of the right to engage in civil society," none of the NGOs contacted by IPS were willing to support Greenpeace on the record.

NGOs might be weary of expressing support for Greenpeace because of its support for "non-violent civil disobedience" or because they are worried about becoming the next targets of DOJ investigations.

Port of Miami authorities cited the pending court case as one of the reasons for denying Greenpeace dock space.

In a written statement to the group Oct. 14, Port Director Charles A. Towsley said that granting the request, "may have resulted in the marine security status of the entire port being elevated, subjecting the port and its various users to increased security requirements, delays and operational costs."

In an interview with IPS, Towsley also noted the upcoming FTAA meeting as a reason for heightened security at the port.

Pressed to explain how the Greenpeace ship posed a greater security risk than a commercial or recreational cruise ship, Towsley suggested the boat might break down in port rendering it unable to be moved before the meeting.

In an interview Friday, Towsley was unable to make clear why a Greenpeace ship, unlike other ones berthing at the port, would subject the facility and its users to unusual "delays and operational costs."

Towsley's letter to Greenpeace also cited "unauthorized boarding that resulted in Greenpeace being indicted ... and other more recent misconduct by your organization."

Asked whether the port was presuming a guilty conviction in the federal case, Towsley said Greenpeace has misrepresented the illegal boarding.

According to Towsley, port authorities witnessed the detaining of the Greenpeace activists, who were wearing ski masks and were in the waters of the Port of Miami channel during the incident.

Towsley said the recent misconduct referred to a recent incident in Vancouver, Canada, where "Greenpeace came into port under the auspices of just reprovisioning, and then illegally boarded a vessel in civil disobedience."

According to Passacantando, "the Port of Miami has offered shifting, inappropriate rationales for keeping Greenpeace's ship from docking."

"We can only conclude that the port does not like Greenpeace's message and wants to prevent the people of Miami from hearing it," he added.

Greenpeace has planned a press conference and reception in Miami on Thursday.

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Albion Monitor October 30, 2003 (

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