A federal judge in Miami, Florida has dismissed charges against the environmental organization Greenpeace, saying the group was not guilty of violating an obscure 19th century law designed to prevent the interruption of commerce. Greenpeace lawyers say the dismissal of charges is a victory for free speech.
Federal prosecutors charged Greenpeace with violating an 1872 law against sailor mongering, which forbids the boarding of any vessel about to arrive at port before actual arrival. The charges stemmed from an incident in 2002 when two Greenpeace activists climbed aboard a ship off the coast of Florida - to protest what they said was an illegal shipment of mahogany hardwood from Brazil.
Just two days into the case a federal judge dismissed the charges saying there was no evidence the ship was about to arrive at its destination - the port of Miami. Greenpeace lawyer David Halperin says the not guilty verdict is a victory for free speech in the United States.
"The real importance of the case as we have been saying from the beginning is, it is the first time in the history of the United States that the government has prosecuted an organization for free speech related activities and in our view that is not an appropriate thing," he said.
"For 230 years since the Boston Tea Party and through the civil rights movement the government has arrested and sometimes prosecuted individuals who wanted to stand up for their beliefs and engage in public protest," he added, "but they never went after an organization. And the reason is that if you go after organizations you may cripple the entire process of free speech and public protest."
While he dismissed the charges against Greenpeace, the federal judge hearing the case did point out that the sailor mongering statute remains on the books and that if Greenpeace activists try and board other ships they could face similar charges.
Greenpeace officials say the charges against them were politically motivated because of the groups' frequent criticism of Bush administration environmental policies. Prosecutors said the only issue was the violation of the law. If Greenpeace had been found guilty, it could have faced the loss of its tax exempt status and been subject to government scrutiny of internal documents, such as membership rolls.
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Miami says federal prosecutors will prosecute anybody who attempts to board ships at the Port of Miami or threatens port security. However because the case never went to a jury prosecutors cannot appeal the judge's decision