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'Ecoterrorism' case stirs debate in US

Environmental radicals, who pleaded guilty to arson, may face harsher sentences under antiterror laws.

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When law-enforcement agencies arrested 10 animal rights activists and environmental radicals 18 months ago, it was a major breakthrough in the fight against what officials call "ecoterrorism."

Among the crimes solved were a string of arsons and other attacks across five Western states totaling more than $40 million in damage. Targets of the group calling itself The Family had been timber companies, meatpacking plants, an SUV dealership, a Colorado ski resort, and the University of Washington Horticultural Center.

Now, with all defendants having pleaded guilty because of the weight of the evidence against them, including an informant who wore a recording device, prosecutors are seeking "terrorism enhancements" to their sentences.

"This is the first time in the history of the US that the federal government is seeking this enhancement for property crimes that did not result in injury or death to humans," said Lauren Regan of the Civil Liberties Defense Center in Eugene, Ore.

In their 148-page sentencing memorandum filed last week in federal court in Eugene, prosecutors argued that "although the government was not a direct victim, it was nonetheless a federal crime of terrorism because of the offenders' motivation." Intimidation, coercion, and retaliation aimed at the conduct of government, prosecutors said, deserves "enhanced" punishment under federal antiterrorism laws.

The ecosaboteurs' goal, according to prosecutors, was to retaliate for certain federal policies related to natural resources and animals, and they were attempting to coerce government agencies into changing those policies. Federal sentencing guidelines in such cases can add up to 20 years to a sentence, and this can also mean being sent to a maximum security prison.

The defendants and their attorneys point out that those charged made special efforts to avoid harming people.

Prosecutors say this makes no difference, especially when it comes to arson attacks.

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