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Are you now or were you ever an environmentalist?

In the wake of the US ‘war on terror’, nonviolent campaigners are increasingly being caught up in a ‘Green Scare’ that defines them as ‘terrorists’

July 1, 2006
6 min read

In the US today, ‘terrorism’ has replaced ‘communism’ as the catchphrase for all that is evil in the world. Where the ‘Red Scare’ once saw all left-wingers stigmatised as ‘communists’, it is environmentalists and animal rights activists who are now being targeted as ‘eco-terrorists’ by the media, business interests and politicians – including the attorney general, Alberto Gonzales. Building on post-9/11 fears and legislation, a new ‘Green Scare’ has escalated in recent months with a sudden rise in the number of environmentalists arrested and a dramatic lengthening of the potential sentences they face. Activists who have never physically harmed anyone now risk being arrested and charged with crimes that carry life sentences – or, as in one case, a charge sheet that could result in a 300-year prison sentence.

On 7 December 2005, the FBI began ‘Operation Backfire’, a multi-state sweep of environmental and animal rights activists. Fifteen people have since been indicted by Grand Jury on 65 charges in connection with Earth Liberation actions between 1996 and 2001. The arrests sent shockwaves across the activist community in the US, with the constant threat of new arrests and legislation resulting in the spread of fear and caution.

Many of those arrested recently insist on their innocence, and the FBI evidence against them is weak. A confession by a self-proclaimed arsonist and heroin addict provided the initial basis for the arrests. The accused were then encouraged to give evidence against each other, in return for the promise of reduced sentences. But confessions under duress are not always the most reliable sources of information.

In the current US political climate, it is virtually impossible for the accused to get a fair trial once the spectre of ‘terrorism’ has been raised. This became clear during the ‘SHAC 7’ case, brought against activists from the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) campaign. They were put on trial under the Animal Enterprise Protection Act, which legislators dubbed the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. It defines as a terrorist anyone who causes financial damage to companies involved in the animal industry.

The six were not accused of carrying out any crimes themselves, but rather of maintaining a website containing information that could potentially be used to commit a crime. They were essentially being accused of terrorism for exercising their right to free speech. But the jury didn’t see it that way. Getting past the term ‘terrorist’ proved too difficult, and the six were found guilty on all counts. They now face potential sentences between one and 23 years for the administration of a website.

This climate of fear is reinforced by legislative changes that have considerably broadened the definition of a ‘terrorist’. Successful lobbying by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a powerful right-wing advocacy group funded by more than 300 corporations, has resulted n several pieces of state-level legislation now defining terrorism as an act by ‘two or more persons organised for the purpose of supporting any politically motivated activity intended to obstruct or deter any person from participating in an activity involving animals or an activity involving natural resources’. It needlessly includes such acts as property defacement – which is already illegal – within the scope of terrorism, and holds the potential to include other forms of legal protest within the same definition. So far ten states have already passed legislation defining the destruction of property as terrorism.

At a federal level, Section 802 of the USA Patriot Act (the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act) defines domestic terrorism as an act that intends to ‘intimidate or coerce a civilian population’, to ‘influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion’ or to ‘affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination or kidnapping’ with the ‘intent to harm human life’. But as the American Civil Liberties Union points out, the breadth of the first two of these definitions means that ‘Greenpeace, Operation Rescue, Vieques Island and WTO protesters and the Environmental Liberation Front have all recently engaged in activities that could subject them to being investigated as engaging in domestic terrorism.’

The Patriot Act also includes greatly expanded search and seizure powers, making it far easier to arrest activists. The US government can now search homes, workplaces, documents and emails, listen to telephone conversations and follow internet use patterns without proving probable cause that someone has committed a crime. They only need to assert, but not prove, reasonable grounds to think that a person may be involved in terrorist activity. These search and seizure powers are the same as those that caused public outcry in 1971 when the FBI’s Cointelpro (counter intelligence programme) was discovered and it became known that the FBI was carrying out illegal and covert activities in violation of the right to privacy and free speech in order to ‘misdirect, discredit, disrupt and otherwise neutralise’ political resistance.

To add insult to injury, the Senate is currently debating the USA Patriot Act II, which would greatly expand the powers of the executive branch – the White House, Department of Justice and so on – over the judiciary. The proposed Act would also make certain search warrants obtainable without a court order, further undermining the checks and balances built into the ‘democratic’ structures of government.

These measures look likely to make an already bad situation worse. There are now so many pending cases that it is impossible to mention them all here. But there is an urgent need for support from abroad. For those arrested, it provides much needed moral support to know that people overseas are aware of their situation. And for US activists in general, it lessens the sense of isolation and fear as they are targeted under the Green Scare.

Please visit www.ecoprisoners.org for more information, and write a letter to the US embassy asking them to ensure a fair trial and calling for an end to the description of environmental activists as ‘terrorists’: Robert Holmes Tuttle, Embassy of the United States, 24 Grosvenor Square, London W1A 1AE. Tel O20 7499 9000

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