|MIAMI - Greenpeace went on trial in the United States this week for boarding a freighter carrying illegally harvested Amazon mahogany, accused of breaking a law against \"sailor mongering\" last used 114 years ago.|
In the first U.S. criminal prosecution for civil disobedience of an advocacy group rather than its individual members, the environmental watchdog faces probation and fines if convicted of a crime over the 2002 protest off Miami.
Sailor mongering was rife in the 19th century when brothels sent prostitutes laden with booze to lure sailors off their ships as they made their way to harbor. The sailors would then be held in bondage and sold to pay off their lodging and food.
The sailor mongering law was passed in 1872, making it a crime to board a ship without authorization. It has only been used twice, the last time in 1890.
Shortly after zipping out to the APL Jade freighter in April 2002 to hang a banner reading: \"President Bush: Stop Illegal Logging,\" six Greenpeace activists were charged, pleaded guilty and sentenced to the weekend they had already spent in jail.
But 15 months later, U.S. federal prosecutors came out with a grand jury indictment of the entire organization under the 1872 law.
Greenpeace and civil liberties defenders say the obscurity of the crime and the delay in indicting the group suggest the prosecution is an act of revenge over Greenpeace\'s criticism of President Bush\'s environmental policies.
Judge Adalberto Jordan of the U.S. District Court in Miami said he expected the trial to last around a week. A 12-person jury was selected this week and the prosecution and defense were due to present their opening arguments yesterday.
Jordan reserved judgment on a motion by chief prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Cameron Elliot, to bar Greenpeace\'s attorneys from presenting a defense based on \"necessity,\" or justification, and on crime prevention.
Greenpeace hopes to argue that its activists were highlighting a crime, and giving Washington an opportunity to live up to its commitment to protect mahogany as a signatory to global treaties listing the wood as endangered.
Elliott declined to comment on the case.
Advocacy groups say that going after the organization instead of their individual activists could have a severe \"chilling\" effect on free speech and legitimate protests.
It would also be a blow to Brazilian efforts to win more backing for its fight against the illegal mahogany trade from the United States, the single biggest market for a wood so valuable it boasts fatter profit margins than cocaine.
Story by Michael Christie
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE