Sixteen environmental activists who delayed the launch of a US missile to protest against Washington's "Star Wars" defense scheme on Tuesday avoided long jail terms by striking a deal with prosecutors.
Some 14 members of the Greenpeace movement and two journalists -- had faced up to 11 years in prison, but under a plea bargain, in which they Tuesday admitted guilt to lesser charges, they now face a maximum six months in jail.
The activists had defied authorities last July by landing their rubber dinghies on the coast of California's Vandenberg Air Force base, disrupting a test of part of Washington's disputed anti missile defense system.
"We are delighted that the felony charges were diminished to misdemeanours, but we are just sorry it rook so long as these guys have been through a lot for what was a peaceful action," said Greenpeace Executive Director John Passacantando.
The deal averted Tuesday's planned start of a trial for the 16 on felony conspiracy and misdemeanour trespass charges, while some were also accused of violating a restricted zone in the Pacific Ocean near the base.
Prosecutors agreed to drop the more serious felony charges in return for a legal promise from Greenpeace USA that it would not trespass or hold protests that broke the law at US military bases for the next five years.
In addition, the group agreed to pay the government 150,000 dollars in damages incurred by the protest north of Los Angeles, while the defendants each agreed to admit a lesser charge of misdemeanour conspiracy.
If Greenpeace defies the injunction, contained in a civil lawsuit in which Greenpeace agreed to be named as defendant, it could face a fine of 500,000 dollars plus damages.
The test of the national missile defense system, in which an unarmed Minuteman II missile was fired over the sea where it blew up another rocket, was delayed for 40 minutes as authorities arrested the protesters.
US Attorney John Gordon said the government believed in the right of activists to legally and peacefully protest government actions, but said the defendants had "willfully refused" to hold their protest in a designated area.
"Instead they unlawfully and dangerously trespassed into the safety zone designated under the flight path of a missile being launched as a part of a test deemed vital to national security," he said.
Greenpeace, while agreeing not to stage illegal protests or trespass on government property for five years, vowed that the conviction and lawsuit would not diminish its opposition to Washington's anti-missile scheme.
"Greenpeace will honour this agreement and still continue to identify threats to the environment and tell the truth about those threats in a non-violent way," Passacanto, said.
"Greenpeace will not change its targets or its objectives in any of its campaigns including nuclear disarmament. There are many other ways in which we can protest."
The 17 activists -- one was delayed in Germany by illness and has not yet been included in the plea bargain -- hail from the United States, Australia, Canada, Germany, India, Sweden, New Zealand and Britain.
US President George W. Bush has informed Russia of his intention to abandon the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty to develop the controversial and expensive missile defense system.
Bush has stressed his determination to develop the anti-missile defense umbrella to protect itself from "rogue states" such as North Korea and Iran.
Moscow has opposed Washington's withdrawal from the treaty while some European states, fearing the US shield could prompt nations like Russia and China to re-invest heavily in nuclear arms, are uneasy over the plan.
Asian experts also fear the move could spark an arms race in volatile northeast Asia, where North and South Korea remain technically at war following their 1950-53 civil conflict.
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Missile Defenses Gets Organized With New Agency
Washington - Jan 4, 2002
Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld announced this week the redesignation of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO) as the Missile Defense Agency (MDA). Consistent with the president's emphasis on missile defense, the secretary also provided direction necessary to meet the top four priorities for the United States in this important mission area.
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