MIAMI — A judge threw out federal charges Wednesday against Greenpeace for a protest in which members of the environmental group clambered aboard a cargo ship loaded with Amazon mahogany.
Greenpeace was charged under an 1872 law — not used in more than a century — that was intended to keep bawdy houses from luring sailors off ships with offers of prostitutes, strong drink and warm beds.
U.S. District Judge Adalberto Jordan ruled there was not enough evidence for the case to go to the jury. He put an end to the case after the prosecution rested.
Greenpeace claimed the charges were payback for its criticism of what the group said is lax Bush administration enforcement of international restrictions on mahogany trade.
Six Greenpeace activists spent the weekend in jail in 2002 after two of them boarded the cargo ship APL Jade six miles from its dock in the Port of Miami to protest a 70-ton load of Brazilian mahogany.
Never before had U.S. authorities criminally prosecuted an advocacy group for civil disobedience, rather than the individual activists involved in a protest.
Greenpeace was accused of illegally boarding the APL Jade as the vessel “was about to arrive at the place of her destination.” It also faced a charge of conspiring to commit that crime.
Greenpeace challenged the prosecution on the wording of the law, saying the ship was too far offshore when it was boarded to be considered “about to arrive” at its destination.
Greenpeace general counsel Tom Wetterer said the statute failed to define what “about to arrive” meant and the judge agreed it was too vague.
Dusting off a law not used since 1890 to bring the first U.S. criminal prosecution of an advocacy group, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Watts-FitzGerald told the court Tuesday that Greenpeace recruited “climbers” for the protest and footed the bill — all indications, he said, the organization and not individual members was in “command and control.”
A Greenpeace corporate credit card was even used to rent a boat, he said. “Greenpeace doesn’t leave home without it,” Watts-FitzGerald quipped in the prosecution’s opening remarks, parodying the American Express advertising slogan.
Greenpeace attorney Jane Moscowitz on Tuesday told the 12-member jury most of the facts of the case were not contested. “The issue is whether what happened here is a crime,” she said.
Moscowitz said the boarding of the APL Jade was part of a global campaign to stop the illegal logging of mahogany in Brazil’s Amazon, a lucrative trade blamed for the destruction of vast swathes of rain forest.
The campaign was so successful that signatory nations to a treaty on endangered species agreed to increase the level of protection for mahogany.
“It would have been a story with a happy ending except that we find ourselves here today,” Moscowitz said.
Advocacy groups said a conviction of Greenpeace could have had a “chilling” effect on free speech and legitimate protests.
It would also have been a blow to Brazilian efforts to win more backing for its fight against the illegal mahogany trade from the United States, the biggest market for a wood so valuable it boasts fatter profit margins than cocaine.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.