Green activists on trial
John Vidal
The Guardian, 10 September 2008

*The acquittal of six Greenpeace activists is the latest in a growing list of court victories by environmental protesters

Environmental campaigners who challenge the law by non-violent action are increasingly being acquitted by juries and magistrates.

In the last decade cases involving genetically modified crops, new roads and nuclear, chemical and arms trade companies have all collapsed after protesters argued that they had acted according to their consciences and that they were trying to prevent a greater crime.

But this was the first time that climate change activists have been cleared of using a "lawful excuse" defence.

The increasing number of acquittals has led to protesters acting openly and accountably, rather than covertly, and seeking court cases. A court gives them a stage on which to present complex scientific and ethical arguments.

Protesters can play up the amount of damage they have done in order to have their cases heard by juries.

In this case, Greenpeace did not question the high cost of GBP30,000 estimated by Kingsnorth's owners E.ON to clean up the damage done to the chimney. The paint in which they daubed the prime minister's first was water-based and would probably have washed off within weeks.

The government is also thought to have wanted the Kingsnorth case to go the highest court possible to deter many expected future protests against coal.

Hundreds of people have already pledged to take direct action against the building of new coal-fired power stations. This verdict is likely to encourage them. The crown has appealed against not guilty magistrate's verdicts several times and has successfully overturned several environmental cases.

Previous form: not guilty
July 1996 A jury at Liverpool crown court acquitted four women charged with causing GBP1.5m damage to a Hawk fighter jet at a British Aerospace factory

October 1999 Angie Zelter, Ellen Moxley and Ulla Roder cleared by Greenock sheriff court of causing GBP80,000 damage to Trident submarine computer equipment at a naval establishment on Loch Goil

November 1999 Tommy Archer, of Radio 4's The Archers, acquitted by a fictional jury of destroying a GM crop

September 2000 A Norwich jury found Greenpeace executive director Lord Peter Melchett and 27 environmental activists not guilty of causing criminal damage to a GM field

June 2001 Five Greenpeace volunteers are found not guilty by Wood Green crown court of criminal damage after occupying the Edmonton incinerator