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Greenpeace to Halt Protests

Court: Group agrees not to commit civil disobedience at U.S. sites involved in antimissile program.

January 09, 2002|DAVID ROSENZWEIG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Greenpeace USA signed a consent decree Tuesday agreeing to halt civil disobedience at all U.S. military installations involved in the "Star Wars" antimissile defense program.

The agreement with federal prosecutors in Los Angeles was part of a deal that led to the dismissal of felony charges against 14 Greenpeace activists and two freelance journalists.

The 16 defendants entered guilty pleas to misdemeanor counts as they were about to go on trial on charges of trying to disrupt a missile launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base in July.

Under terms of the plea agreement, each defendant faces a maximum of six months in custody, although some are expected to receive probation.

John Passacantando, Greenpeace USA's executive director, said that relinquishing civil disobedience in the protest campaign was a "worthwhile price to pay because we wanted the prosecution to drop those completely unwarranted felony charges."

Since its founding more than 30 years ago, Greenpeace has resorted to civil disobedience in protests involving a wide range of environmental issues and the nuclear arms race.

Passacantando said the organization would continue its campaign against the U.S. missile defense program through other means. "Sometimes," he said, "you have to bob and weave."

Overall, he said, he was pleased with the outcome.

Without admitting any wrongdoing in the July 14 Vandenberg protest, Greenpeace USA also agreed to pay a $150,000 fine to the federal government.

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

The defendants were arrested after they defied Coast Guard warnings and entered restricted waters off Vandenberg in small boats.

Base officials said the only disruption occurred when two protesters jumped into the water 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.

The base has been the target of an increasing number of protests because of the antimissile test program.

Greenpeace officials said this was the first time that nonviolent demonstrators at Vandenberg had been charged with felonies. They accused the Bush administration of trying to intimidate protesters, a contention denied by federal prosecutors.

"People have the right to vigorously--but lawfully--protest government actions, and the Department of Justice and the Department of Defense fully believe in honoring that constitutional right," said U.S. Atty. John S. Gordon.

"In this case, however, the defendants willfully refused to conduct their protest in the lawfully designated demonstration area at Vandenberg. Instead, they dangerously trespassed into the safety zone designated under the flight path of a missile being launched as part of a test deemed vital to national security."

In its civil settlement with the government, Greenpeace agreed not to violate any federal, state or local laws during anti-"Star Wars" protests at military facilities in the United States or at the Kwajalein atoll in the Pacific.

Greenpeace will be subject to a $500,000 fine if any officers, directors or employees intentionally violate terms of the injunction.

The ban, which also applies to the 16 defendants, is to remain in effect for a maximum of five years or until the antimissile test program is concluded.

U.S. District Judge Margaret Morrow set tentative sentencing dates of Jan. 18 and April 15. Assistant U.S. Atty. Sharon McCaslin said the prosecution has not decided on which terms to recommend for every defendant. Much of that will depend on a person's criminal and military history, she said.

Those not jailed are expected to be placed on three years' probation.

A 17th defendant was unable to attend Tuesday's proceedings because he is hospitalized, but the same plea agreement will apply to him.

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