Miami — When the wave-tossed Greenpeace activists boarded a container ship off Miami Beach two years ago, they didn't know it could lead to prosecution under a 132-year-old law aimed at keeping boarding houses from luring sailors to shore.
In a tactic the group has often used to make a point, the activists attempted to unfurl a large banner on the ship to protest what they saw as the Bush administration's inaction on a ban on Amazon mahogany imports.
In a trial starting today, federal prosecutors will dust off an 1872 law aimed at preventing "sailor mongering" to seek the first conviction of an advocacy group over its protest techniques.
The environmental group, a staunch critic of the Bush administration, and others see the case as an attempt to silence political dissent.
"Never has anything like this been done and it's particularly suspect in light of the mission of Greenpeace," said attorney Maria Kayanan, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union who is helping in Greenpeace's defense.
On April 12, 2002, three miles off the coast of Florida near Miami Beach, the crew of the APL Jade stopped two Greenpeace climbers before they could unroll a banner saying "President Bush, Stop Illegal Logging" on the ship, which carried 70 tons of mahogany that Greenpeace believes to be contraband.
Individual Greenpeace members were prosecuted immediately. In an unprecedented move, prosecutors indicted the organization itself 15 months later on misdemeanor charges of illegal boarding and conspiracy. A conviction could be punished by five years of probation and a $20,000 fine.
The rarely used 1872 law was aimed at keeping boarding houses from luring sailors off inbound ships with offers of harlots, strong drink and warm beds. Law books mention the law only twice, most recently in 1890.
"It harkens to the Barbary Coast and wenches with heaving bosoms and kegs of rum," said Kayanan.
Fast forward to the 21st century, when Greenpeace is working with the Brazilian government to keep its most valuable tree, the big leaf mahogany, in the ground instead of in American homes.
Greenpeace claims its protest called attention to illegal logging in the Brazilian rain forest and the Bush administration's failure to enforce an import ban under an international environmental treaty.