Going overboard

Published: Tuesday, June 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, June 1, 2004 at 12:16 a.m.
Two years ago, two Greenpeace activists climbed the ladder of a cargo ship about three miles off the coast of Miami. The organization, which stages events to draw attention to environmental issues, suspected a shipment of illegal mahogany was aboard.
Brazil's rain forests are being destroyed by mahogany logging, and the country had put a moratorium on mahogany exports in October 2001. But Greenpeace had discovered seized mahogany in Miami the week before the boat boarding. The mahogany was going to a Florida-based company.
Greenpeace also found evidence that the ports of Baltimore; Charleston; Gulfport, Miss.; Houston; and Norfolk, Va., had received illegal mahogany shipments, reported The Wall Street Journal.
While Greenpeace activists boarded the boat, other activists used small boats to hinder the U.S. Coast Guard's efforts to intervene - because the Coast Guard wasn't interested in ship's cargo, but in the boarders.
Six who were involved with the boarding were arrested on felony charges of interfering with the Coast Guard's duties and a lesser charge of trespassing on the ship. Federal prosecutors dropped the felony charges, but the misdemeanor charges of interfering with the Coast Guard and boarding a vessel before arrival were allowed to stand.
The six did not contest the charges. They were sentenced to time served and released after a weekend in jail.
The end of that was only the beginning of the "sailor-mongering" indictment.
Even the most nautically aware may not know the term. It is part of a federal law that was passed in 1872, and had not been used in court since 1890.
In mid-2003 - 15 months after the boarding incident - the U.S. Department of Justice brought a charge of sailor mongering against Greenpeace - the first time an act of its members has resulted in the indictment of an organization.
The sailor-mongering law was passed to discourage brothels from sending out women and liquor to ships that were approaching port. Greenpeace accused Attorney General John Ashcroft of using the law in an attempt to stifle speech against the administration.
"There is not only the suspicion but also perhaps the reality that the purpose of the prosecution is to inhibit First Amendment activities," Bruce S. Ledewitz, a law professor at Duquesne University who has studied the history of civil disobedience in America, told The New York Times.
Recently, U.S. District Judge Adalberto Jordan granted Greenpeace's motion to dismiss the charges.
"Because of fortuity," the judge said, the boarding occurred about six miles from the port of Miami, and that does not meet the definition of a ship "about to arrive." He added that although the law didn't apply in this case, it still existed. "Caveat emptor," he added as a warning for Greenpeace to beware.
Other public-interest organizations have taken note that the prosecution of Greenpeace for the action of its members seems to be a marked shift in administration policy. That the effort was made by grasping at a law that had not been used in more than a century adds an even more chilling aspect.
Greenpeace has been put on notice that the sailor-mongering law is still on the books. Other organizations are well aware that the Justice Department is capable of going overboard.

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