First Amendment Rights At Stake in Ashcroft Case Against Greenpeace

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In Miami, a trial involving the Justice Department and Greenpeace begins today that could have a wide reaching impact on the future of protest in the country. The Justice Department is using an obscure 1872 law that forbids sailor mongering to prosecute Greenpeace for the actions of two of its members. [includes rush transcript]

In Miami, a trial has just begun involving the Justice Department and Greenpeace that could have a wide reaching impact on the future of protest in the country.

The Justice Department is using an obscure 1872 law that forbid sailor mongering to prosecute Greenpeace for the actions of two of its members.

In April 2002, two Greenpeace activists boarded a ship that was believed to be illegally carrying mahogany from Brazil. They hoisted a banner saying, “President Bush, Stop Illegal Logging”.

The activists were both arrested. They soon plead guilty to misdemeanors. Their sentence was time served.

But the case turned out to be just beginning.

15 months later John Ashcroft’s Justice Department filed criminal charges against Greenpeace. The trial began Monday.

We are joined now by Greenpeace Executive Director John Passacantando. He joins us on his way to the Miami court house.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined by Greenpeace’s Executive Director, John Passacantando.

JOHN PASSACANTANDO: Good morning Amy. Thank you for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Good morning. You are going to the Miami courthouse. Tell us briefly what this case is about?

JOHN PASSACANTANDO: What’s happening is for the first time in our 230 years of history, and in Greenpeace’s 33 years of history, the federal government is trying to criminalize a peaceful organization, Greenpeace, for fostering the activities of dissent, the free speech activities of it’s activists. While Greenpeace was absolutely behind what these activists did in boarding the ship that contained illegally-logged mahogany from the Amazon against Brazilian law and U.S. law. That wood was not supposed to be cut or imported into the country because it’s an endangered species. And in fact, we have plead not guilty. We did not actually break the law we are talking about, the sailor mongering. But that aside, for the first time in the U.S. history the government wants to criminalize the group behind the activists. It’s as if the government would criminalize the NAACP, th FCLT, the 1960’s civil rights groups. The government has never done that. It’s always punished the activists for the free speech activities, but never the organization behind them. It just shows the level, in my mind, that this administration will go to silence its critics.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to John Passacantando. He is Greenpeace Executive Director in Miami. How did this happen? The charges were brought 15 months after the so-called crime was committed?

JOHN PASSACANTANDO: I’m telling you, it is the most bizarre thing that has ever happened to us in our history. What we did in Miami were the activists went out and met this boat three to six miles off the coast of Miami, put a spotlight on the fact that illegally logged mahogany, destroying the Amazon was coming into this country. We were doing activities like this all around the world and achieved a very successful moratorium that President Bush as window dressing supported, the moratorium against cutting of these trees. Behind the scenes the federal government convened a grand jury, was subpoenaing and questioning my activists, and then almost two years later, we had the first federal indictment of a peaceful, non-violent organization in U.S. history. It is really — the world has changed in the Bush era, but the judge has granted our right to have a jury trial. A jury was selected yesterday, and I have to tell you that while it is — you know, a very strange experience for to us be fighting for our rights to dissent and the right of any Americans to dissent, I think we can prevail in this.

AMY GOODMAN: What does this mean at this point, the timing of this? I mean, whether or not the justice department thought they would win, we’re moving into perhaps a time of the most intense protests in a long time as we move into the Republican and Democratic conventions in this election here year. What effect has it had on Greenpeace and also on other groups?

JOHN PASSACANTANDO: Well, you know, it’s certainly getting a good deal of publicity. I think there probably are groups that are looking at this and thinking, can we dissent anymore and to what degree can we do that? This is clearly an attempt to have this chilling effect on Greenpeace and to make an example of Greenpeace. I think if we hold our ground and we remain dignified and do our work in the peaceful and clear manner that we always have I think we can prevail and create an example to show that even the Bush Administration, even Attorney General John Ashcroft, with all of their power, can’t suppress dissent in the United States because people know, even if they don’t do it themselves, that they benefit from the people who peacefully dissent to keep our democracy healthy. I think we can prevail in this, but there’s a jury that’s going to determine that over the next week-and-a-half.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what is the process of this trial? What’s happened so far?

JOHN PASSACANTANDO: Well, a jury was selected yesterday, and I’m rushing off to opening statements by government this morning and by my lawyers. Then we’ll go back and forth through witnesses, and each side will present its case. Then the judge will give instructions to the jury, and we’ll see where we stand in a few days.

AMY GOODMAN: Is John Ashcroft personally involved?

JOHN PASSACANTANDO: No. His prosecutors from the South Miami office are in the courtroom, and they’re representing the United States government.

AMY GOODMAN: Has this stopped Greenpeace from focusing on the issues of the environment that you usually focus on as you prepare for this trial?

JOHN PASSACANTANDO: Well, I have to say it’s not stopped us. There’s planning going on, there’s major activities coming, even back in U.S. forests, as they’re being put to the blade by many contributors, campaign contributors to George Bush. But I must admit this is costing an enormous amount of money and time. We have a lot of our leadership tied up in this lawsuit, and all I can say is that it’s our duty to prevail in this. We’re doing everything we can to do so.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much John Passacantando, head of Greenpeace now in Miami for the court case. This is Democracy Now!

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