MIAMI — When the wave-tossed Greenpeace activists boarded a container ship off Miami Beach two years ago, they didn’t know it could lead to prosecution under a 132-year-old law aimed at keeping boardinghouses from luring sailors to shore.
In a tactic Greenpeace often has used to make a point, the activists attempted to unfurl a large banner on the ship to protest what they saw as the Bush administration’s inaction on a ban on Amazon mahogany imports.
In a trial starting today, federal prosecutors will dust off an 1872 law aimed at preventing “sailor-mongering” to seek the first conviction of an advocacy group over its protest techniques.
The environmental group, a staunch critic of the Bush administration, and others see the case as an attempt to silence political dissent.
“Never has anything like this been done, and it’s particularly suspect in light of the mission of Greenpeace,” said attorney Maria Kayanan, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who is helping with Greenpeace’s defense.
On April 12, 2002, three miles off the coast of Florida near Miami Beach, the crew of the APL Jade stopped two Greenpeace climbers before they could unroll a banner saying “President Bush, Stop Illegal Logging” on the ship, which was carrying 70 tons of mahogany that Greenpeace believes to have been contraband.
Individual Greenpeace members were prosecuted immediately. In an unprecedented move, prosecutors indicted the organization itself 15 months later on misdemeanor charges of illegal boarding and conspiracy. A conviction could be punished by five years’ probation and a $20,000 fine.
Prosecutors have not talked about the case outside court.
The rarely used 1872 law was aimed at keeping boardinghouses from luring sailors off inbound ships with offers of harlots, strong drink and warm beds. Law books mention the law only twice, most recently in 1890.
Fast-forward to the 21st century, when Greenpeace is working with the Brazilian government to keep its most valuable tree, the big-leaf mahogany, in the ground instead of in American homes.
David Bookbinder, Washington legal director for the Sierra Club, said the prosecution is political persecution.
“This administration is drunk on power and has gotten to the point where it thinks that it’s appropriate to respond to political criticism with criminal prosecution,” he said.