MIAMI -- When prosecutors brought charges against Greenpeace for protesting a shipment of Amazon mahogany, they dusted off a 19th-century federal law enacted to stop pimps from clambering aboard ships entering port.
Environmentalists call the charges a heavy-handed attempt to stifle free speech, and say the government is retaliating against Greenpeace for previous in-your-face protests against the Bush administration.
The federal government has never successfully prosecuted an entire activist organization on criminal charges over its protest methods -- not Operation Rescue, not the NAACP, not even the Ku Klux Klan.
"It's an incredible abuse of power, and this is nothing short of political retribution," said a Sierra Club spokesman, Eric Antebi. "We think this sets a horrible precedent for political intimidation of public-interest groups."
Environmentalists want a judge to throw out the indictment and release Justice Department records that may show why charges were brought under an 1872 law not used since the 1800s.
The judge is expected to rule early this year on the requests by Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, the American Civil Liberties Union, and other supporters.
Defending the prosecution in court last month, Assistant US Attorney Cameron Elliot said, "There is no evidence that the government has discriminated against Greenpeace because of its political views."
The mahogany protest occurred as the 965-foot APL Jade approached Miami Beach on April 12, 2002. Two Greenpeace protesters jumped aboard the ship more than 3 miles from shore, wearing shirts emblazoned with "Greenpeace illegal forest crime unit" and carrying a banner reading "President Bush, Stop Illegal Logging."
The ship's crew kept them from unfurling the banner.
Six activists were arrested on federal misdemeanor charges, and the indictment against the organization based on the old law came 15 months later.
The law was enacted to keep brothel operators from infiltrating ships "about to" dock. Pimps and others from brothels would row out to the vessels and persuade the sailors to jump ship with them or come over after docking.
The sailors were then wined, dined, and separated from their money.
One reason Greenpeace is fighting so hard is the potential punishment: a $20,000 fine and five years' probation, which could hinder the organization's use of civil disobedience as a protest tactic and could potentially open Greenpeace finances, operations, support, and membership to government inspection.
"For an advocacy organization dedicated to passionate dissent, that could be a crippling inhibition," the Natural Resources Defense Council said in a brief in support of Greenpeace.
The nonprofit Greenpeace also fears the government will revoke its tax-exempt status if it is convicted.
Greenpeace, perhaps best known for sailing its boats into restricted waters and interfering with whaling ships and other vessels on the open seas, has been bothersome to President Bush since shortly after his inauguration, when members put up a banner near his Texas ranch calling him the "toxic Texan."
Other groups are watching the case closely and say the charges run counter to the rich American tradition of civil disobedience as seen during the abolitionist, suffrage, civil rights, and antiwar movements.
"Greenpeace is an advocacy group. It is important that they be as free as possible to engage in their advocacy," said Floyd Abrams, a lawyer who specializes in the First Amendment. "The decision to indict Greenpeace seems to me to be constitutionally insensitive."