Do Greenpeace causes deserve immunity from prosecution?

I don’t think there’s a simple answer to this – protests and degrees of lawbreaking and importance of causes can vary a lot.

But Russel Norman and co-defendant Sara Howell are claiming that if they are convicted for “low level civil disobedience” it would prevent other protests for fear of prosecution.

There are ways to protest without breaking the law, but that’s not part of this story.

Stuff:  Greenpeace activists oil ship protest was just ‘low level disobedience’

Greenpeace executive director Russel Norman and fellow activist Sara Howell appeared in Napier District Court on Friday to apply for a discharge without conviction after admitting a charge of interfering with an oil exploration vessel.

The prosecution

Crown prosecutor Cameron Stuart said the pair caused significant disruption and danger and there was a high level of perseverance and premeditation by the defendants, as evidenced by the fact they acknowledged they rehearsed their moves in advance.

Their actions posed huge risk to them and to the ship’s crew and sensationalised what would have been a peaceful and legal activity”.

“This hearing is not about the morality of the law. It’s not about oil. It’s not about climate change,” Stuart said.

He said the consequences of a conviction would not be out of all proportion to the gravity of the offending. He said the pair had leveraged what they called an “unjust prosecution” as a means of publicising their views.

This raised questions as to how their reputation could be damaged if they were convicted, he said.

The defence

Norman and Howell were represented by Ron Mansfield, said the pair were devoted to fighting climate change and the burning of fossil fuels.

Their views were genuine, well-held, and designed to care for generations to come, Mansfield said.

He said the pair had entered the water at a distance from the vessel that permitted it to avoid them without too much disruption.

He said the danger had been “completely overstated” and the pair could have been removed from the water at any time.

Mansfield said the offending was “low level civil disobedience” and it would be concerning if others undertaking such protests were prevented from doing so because they feared being convicted.

The judge

Judge Arthur Tompkins said that argument “cut both ways” and there may be an argument as to why a conviction was necessary.

Judge Tompkins said other protesters had been convicted in the past and this had not had the “chilling effect” Mansfield suggested.

The verdict – not yet

Judge Tompkins reserved his decision. The pair were remanded until September 24.

The pair faced a maximum penalty of 12 months’ imprisonment, or a fine of up to $50,000 for the offence of interfering with or coming within 500m of an offshore ship involved in oil exploration.

The discussion

Protest is an important part of a democratic country.

Laws are generally to protect safety and freedoms.

The offence of interfering or coming close to a ship involved in exploration was contentious. From NZ Petroleum & Minerals:

People are free to protest on the water as they are on land – provided they do not interfere with structures or vessels involved in lawful petroleum and minerals activities.

While a number of laws cover activities at sea, provisions specific to offshore petroleum and minerals activities were introduced following protests that hindered a seismic survey vessel in 2011.

In May 2013 the Crown Minerals Act 1991, which governs the allocation of the Crown’s petroleum and mineral resources, was amended. New offences were introduced for damaging or interfering with structures or ships being used offshore in prospecting, exploration and mining activities – including incursions into specified Non Interference Zones.

Green MP Gareth Hughes in parliament 13 April 2017:

GARETH HUGHES (Green) to the Minister of Energy and Resources: Does she agree with Dr Russel Norman, who said that section 101B(1)(c) of the Crown Minerals Act 1991, known as the Anadarko Amendment, was “put in place by the Government to protect the interest of big oil and to stifle dissent”?

If the “Anadarko Amendment” is all about protecting people’s safety, why does it apply only to the oil and mining industries, and is this simply a case of one law for us and one law for oil?

Can the Minister confirm that that 2013 amendment, used to charge Dr Norman, was passed under urgency with no consultation and received no New Zealand Bill of Rights Act check, and that polls at the time showed 79 percent of Kiwis wanted to see it withdrawn or sent back to committee?

I remember the opposition to the bill, but I don’t remember the poll, and I can’t find it..