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FBI’s Operation Backfire Unconstitutional, Lawyers

National Lawyers Guild Condemns FBI’s Operation Backfire As Unconstitutional

Legal Hotline Available for Activists

Educational Symposium Scheduled for Attorneys and Law Students

New York. The National Lawyers Guild condemns the FBI’s Operation Backfire “green scare” tactics as an unconstitutional abuse of authority. The FBI has engaged in an orchestrated campaign of issuing subpoenas to environmental activists, conducting large scale roundups of activists, levying unprecedented penalties for property crimes, and using threats of severe sanctions to leverage fear of conviction and force individuals to turn state’s evidence.

In 2004, the federal government launched Operation Backfire, a wide-scale investigation of environmental and animal rights activists. It used paid informants and conducted warrantless spying on a range of organizations. Since then, numerous individuals around the country have been arrested and charged with arson, destruction of property and conspiracy in the government’s attempts to target the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and the Animal Liberation Front (ALF). Others were subpoenaed to testify before grand juries. Some were charged with the use of “destructive devices,” one count of which carries a mandatory 30-year sentence—two counts call for mandatory life in prison. The government is over-charging people with offenses that carry severe sanctions to force them to accept guilty pleas for a lower sentence or to intimidate them into turning state’s evidence. The National Lawyers Guild believes that the government is misusing destructive device charges and engaging in selection prosecution.

For example, in the SHAC7 (Stop Huntington Animal Cruelty) case the government in 2004 prosecuted the administrators of a website, charging them with ‘conspiracy’ to violate the Animal Enterprise Protection Act, an industry-specific statute that provides harsher sentences for those protesting animal-related businesses than say those protesting women’s health clinics. The Animal Enterprise Protection Act is a clear violation of the First Amendment, as it makes certain types of political speech illegal. Three of the SHAC7 defendants were found guilty only of conspiracy, a charge that is rarely prosecuted without a substantive offense connected to it.

“In the past few years, the Guild has witnessed a disturbing trend of targeting protesters engaged in dissent, and in imposing draconian sentences for expressing such dissent. Life sentences for property damage offenses where the actor has no intent to harm an individual are simply unconstitutional—the punishment does not fit the crime,” said Heidi Boghosian, Executive Director of the National Lawyers Guild.

The FBI rates ALF and ELF as the number one domestic terrorist threat, calling eco-sabotage the government’s top domestic terrorism priority. The State Department’s definition of terrorism is: "premeditated politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatants." The expanded definition of domestic terrorism in the Patriot Act punishes a person who commits a dangerous criminal act intended to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population.” The Guild is greatly concerned about the use of the word terrorism because it obfuscates issues about the evidence and the ability to fairly evaluate the merits of the case.

The National Lawyers Guild has established a hotline, 888-NLG-ECOLAW, for individuals arrested or subpoenaed for offenses related to environmental or animal activism. The hotline will be operational on June 26. Also on June 26, the Guild will hold a symposium, “The Green Scare: What Lawyers Need to Know,” at Cardozo Law School in New York, New York, at 6:30pm. Speakers include Lauren Regan, founder and executive director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center in Oregon; Andrew Erba, attorney for one of the SHAC7 defendants, Brendan Story of Friends and Family of Daniel McGowan, and New York civil rights attorney Daniel Meyers.

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