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Seattle judge orders release of two activists held for contempt

A poster in support of the jailed activists. Matthew Duran and Katherine Olejnik were ordered released Thursday by a federal judge. Matthew Pfeiffer remains detained.
(Committee Against Political Repression)

SEATTLE—Two activists jailed for refusing to cooperate in a federal grand jury investigation of anarchists in the Pacific Northwest were scheduled to be released from prison Thursday after a judge ruled there was little chance they would change their minds.

The detainees, Matt Duran and Katherine Olejnik, have been held for more than five months, mostly in solitary confinement. Officials had hoped to pressure them to testify about suspected anarchists believed to have vandalized a federal appeals courthouse in Seattle during May Day demonstrations in 2012.

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The pair have been the subject of public demonstrations at the federal detention center south of Seattle and an appeal by the Seattle Human Rights Commission, which this month argued that holding them isolated for 23 hours a day with little human contact could cause permanent psychological injury.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Richard A. Jones ordered their release, concluding that there was so little possibility they would agree to testify that holding them longer constituted not coercion but punishment.

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“Their resolve appears to increase as their confinement continues,” the judge wrote in his ruling. “Whatever the merits of their choices not to testify, their demeanor has never given the court reason to doubt their sincerity or the strength of their convictions.”

Duran, a computer technician and self-described anarchist from Olympia, Wash., and Olejnik, a community activist and bartender who also has connections in the anarchist community, argued that the grand jury was on a fishing expedition aimed at antigovernment political beliefs.

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“His first concern was that the government was targeting him because of his associations and activities instead of any genuine evidence that they had,” said Duran’s attorney, Kimberly Gordon. “Examining his conscience and his morals suggested to him that he didn’t want to be part of the government’s efforts to put other people in custody.”

An FBI affidavit in the case outlined extensive evidence that masked demonstrators adopting the “black bloc” style of protest attacked the doorway of the federal courthouse with long wooden sticks.

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It appeared that many of them are already known by name to the authorities, who believe they traveled from Oregon and coordinated with Seattle activists by cellphone and text message, according to the affidavit.

Defense lawyers argued that both Duran and Olejnik had served longer in custody than any of the purported targets of the grand jury criminal investigation would be likely to face if identified and convicted.

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“It’s been 5½ months, at least for Matt, and he has spent at least 2½ months in solitary confinement, in the secured housing unit, which is what people think of as ‘the shoe,’ or ‘the hole,’” Gordon said.

“There’s no fresh air, no windows, you get one 15-minute phone call a month. They’ve had no visitors, though [Olejnik’s] parents finally were allowed in to see her last week,” she said. “There are references to this kind of confinement in Sen. John McCain’s book—he talks in pretty stark terms of it being worse than many other forms of torture.”

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The Republican from Arizona was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War.

In Jones’ ruling, he noted that both activists remained in contempt of court, but because “there is no substantial likelihood that continued confinement would coerce Ms. Olejnik or Mr. Duran to testify … the court finds no basis for their continued confinement.”

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The judge ordered them released by 4 p.m. Thursday.

Although the court’s ruling dispenses with the civil contempt detention, federal prosecutors could still decide to file criminal contempt charges.

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Emily Langlie, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Seattle, said federal authorities would have no comment. “The law provides that it is up to the judge to determine whether detention for civil contempt continued to be coercive,” she said. “That really is all we have to say at this time.”

A third detainee, Matthew Pfeiffer, who was incarcerated in December, remains under detention in the case.

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kim.murphy@latimes.com

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