Oregon Environmental Activists Sentenced

In Oregon, a federal judge has begun sentencing a group of environmental activists who pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy and arson from 1996 to 2001. Are they terrorists, as prosecutors assert?

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A federal judge in Oregon has begun handing down sentences for a string of so-called eco-arson attacks that were committed a few years ago. The first sentence was delivered yesterday, and it categorized some of the arsons as terrorism under federal law.

NPR's Martin Kaste reports from Eugene, Oregon.

MARTIN KASTE: What exactly is terrorism? It's more than just an academic question here at the corner of Franklin and Walnut.

(Soundbite of traffic)

This used to be the site of the Joe Romania Chevrolet Truck Center, a sales lot full of Suburbans, Tahoes and other SUVs. But on a spring night in 2001, it all went up in a big ball of fire. David Maggert(ph) works as a gas station attendant across the street. He recalls the scene when the sun came up.

Mr. DAVID MAGGERT: About the only way I can describe it is it looked something like something out of a "Terminator" movie where things have been blown up and there was nothing but wreckage around.

KASTE: It was arson, and it wasn't the first one either. The same dealership had been torched just the year before. In those days before 9/11, attacks like this were common here in the West. Just in Eugene, there were fires set at a meat company, a dairy, even a police station.

A shadowy environmental group calling itself the Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility. Now, six years and one government informant later, 10 of the group's activists have confessed to the crimes. The whole situation has made people here in Eugene think through their definitions of terrorism. At the gas station, David Magert defines it this way.

Mr. MAGERT: Scaring the hell out of a lot of people by threatening or taking a lot of life.

KASTE: And he says since the eco-arsons never hurt anyone, it was not terrorism. But for Chris Reese(ph), working at a hotel across the street, it's not about the body count. Terrorism is about motive.

Mr. CHRIS REESE: They're trying to really start some type of cult or whatever -yeah, it's terrorism.

KASTE: In this case, their purpose was political environmentalism, like extreme environmentalism…

Mr. REESE: I definitely that would be terrorism.

KASTE: What's the difference for you? I mean, why does the political aspect that make it terrorism for you?

Mr. REESE: Because they're doing it for a higher purpose.

KASTE: And that seems to be the thinking of U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken, who's in charge of sentencing the 10 arsonists. She says federal law defines terrorism as a violent crime meant to intimidate or coerce the government.

Yesterday, as she handed down the first of the 10 sentences, Aiken gave the defendant a tongue-lashing. She called his methods terroristic, and she said the arsons had harmed the legitimate environmental movement. She told him, quote, "intimidation can play no role in changing the hearts and minds of people in a democracy."

The defendant, 29-year-old Stanislas Meyerhoff, hung his head and nodded in agreement. The judge gave him 13 years. She could have given him up to 30, she says, but he got a break for cooperating with prosecutors. But it's not just about the number of years. Lauren Regan, a lawyer working with some of the other defendants, says the terrorism label is a punishment in itself.

Mr. LAUREN REGAN (Executive Director, Civil Liberties Defense Center): That almost ensures that if the Bureau of Prisons were to operate as they normally do, that he would be looking at a super-max facility intended to hold house the most violent offenders in this country.

KASTE: In fact, the judge has conceded this point. She says Meyerhoff is not a violent or risky prisoner, but she simply can't change the fact that the terrorism label is likely send him to a harsher prison.

Federal prosecutors yesterday would not comment. They don't want to talk about anything until all 10 arsonists have been sentenced. But it is clear that they're not getting everything they want. Though the judge is defining terrorism by motive, she's doing it very narrowly.

In Meyerhoff's case, for instance, she's tagged him with terrorism in only the arsons that were explicitly directed against the government, and not in arsons against private entities. But that distinction may be a thing of the past. These defendants are being sentenced under the laws that were in effect at the time. Since 9/11, Congress has expanded the definition of terrorism, and yesterday, Judge Aiken told the defendants that they should, in her words, thank their lucky stars that the government was even willing to offer them a plea bargain.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Eugene, Oregon.

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