A federal judge Wednesday acquitted the environmental group Greenpeace on charges it conspired to break the law by sending activists aboard a freighter carrying illegally harvested mahogany.
The politically charged case dusted off a law not used since 1890 to bring the first criminal prosecution by U.S. authorities of an advocacy group for civil disobedience.
U.S. District Judge Adalberto Jordan granted a Greenpeace motion to dismiss the charges after the prosecution rested on the third day of trial, ruling federal prosecutors had failed to prove their case.
The charges stemmed from an incident in April 2002 when two Greenpeace activists climbed onto the APL Jade freighter just off Miami to hang a sign reading: “President Bush: Stop Illegal Logging.”
The Greenpeace members were charged and pleaded guilty after the incident. Fifteen months later, prosecutors targeted the entire organization with a grand jury indictment.
Civil rights advocates said the obscurity of the law used to take Greenpeace to court suggested the case was revenge for Greenpeace’s criticism of Bush’s environmental policies.
Passed in 1872 to prevent “sailor mongering,” the law has been gathering dust since it was last prosecuted in 1890.
Sailor mongering was common in the 19th century, when brothels sent prostitutes onto ships before they had reached harbor to lure sailors ashore with alcohol and promises of warm beds.
Greenpeace was accused of illegally boarding the APL Jade as the 964-foot 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.
The boarding of the APL Jade was part of a global campaign to stop the illegal logging of mahogany, a lucrative trade blamed for the destruction of vast swathes of rain forest in the Amazon in Brazil.
The United States is the largest market for the illegal mahogany trade.