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Activists, U.S. Talking on Eve of Felony Trial

Legal: Greenpeace protest near Vandenberg in July resulted in counts against 17. Lesser charges may resolve the case.


Eleventh-hour negotiations were underway Monday to settle the case against 15 activists and two freelance journalists accused of illegally entering a restricted military zone to protest an antimissile defense test.

The 17 are scheduled to go to trial today in Los Angeles on felony charges connected with a Greenpeace protest in the Pacific Ocean off Vandenberg Air Force Base in July.

Some protesters paddled boats into the restricted zone offshore, while others swam. Officials at the base said the test was delayed only two minutes, but Greenpeace claimed that it was postponed by 40 minutes as the protesters were moved out of the missile's path.

Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles, said the trial is still set to begin today. "But there are ongoing settlement negotiations," he said, that could postpone or conclude the case without a trial.

Mrozek refused to describe the nature of the discussions. But settlements in similar cases usually include a plea to a lesser charge.

The protesters and freelance journalists, from Germany, Australia, Britain, India, Sweden and Canada, as well as the United States, face felony charges of entering restricted waters.

Though the maximum sentence on the charges is 11 years, nobody expects any protester to face a sentence that long. Nonetheless, a Greenpeace spokeswoman, Carol Gregory, has in the past accused the government of filing unduly harsh charges, saying this shows a policy change by the Bush administration to treat peaceful protesters much more sternly than in the past.

She was more circumspect Monday, declining to comment on the government's motives.

"The U.S. attorney's office has just given us a proposal," she said. "We're discussing it right now."

Government officials denied any policy shift has occurred. Mrozek said recently that the conduct of the protesters was "very different" from the behavior in previous demonstrations outside Vandenberg.

Greenpeace organized the July demonstration to underscore its opposition to the development of an antiballistic missile shield, claiming that it could reignite an international arms race if other nations try to build weapons that would counter it.

The test fired an unarmed Minuteman II missile over the ocean, where it was destroyed by an interceptor rocket launched from a Pacific island.

Vandenberg officials said the only disruption caused by the protest occurred when two protesters jumped out of their small boats and swam to shore on the base. When they emerged from the water, they had hypothermia and had to be taken to a hospital by helicopter.

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