Sat, Nov 01, 2003 - Page 7 News List

US using law from 19th century to sue Greenpeace


Greenpeace is being taken to court by the US government because of the group's action against the illegal importation of mahogany. Its lawyers says it is the first time an entire organization has been criminally prose-cuted for the activities of two members.

The prosecution arises from the activity in April last year of two Greenpeace members who boarded a vessel off the coast of Miami allegedly carrying mahogany from Brazil to the US and hoisted a banner saying: "President Bush, Stop Illegal Logging."

They were accompanied by journalists who recorded the event. Both protesters and 12 other Greenpeace activists in support vessels were arrested and jailed over the weekend. Six were charged with misdemeanors, and pleaded guilty.

Normally that would have been an end of the matter, a familiar event for Greenpeace, whose activists are regularly arrested and usually fined or sentenced to short jail terms.

But this time the government has decided to prosecute the organization as a whole. A rarely used law forbidding the unauthorized boarding of vessels, introduced in the 19th century to prevent boarding-house owners leaping on to docking ships to get clients, is being employed. Lawyers say that a conviction could result in conditions being attached to Greenpeace activities which would lead to punitive fines each time an "illegal" activity was undertaken in its name.

The prosecution alleges that the boarding was carried out "under the erroneous belief" that the ship was carrying mahogany. Greenpeace says it had marked the mahogany, but the authorities had declined to seize it.

The boarding was part of a long-running Greenpeace campaign against the illegal logging and export of mahogany. It is an officially endangered species and is logged from the indigenous lands in the state of Para, resulting in widespread deforestation. Greenpeace has worked with the Brazilian government against the trade.

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