Dozens of Line 3 protesters’ cases still clogging the courts

Sometimes the wheels of justice grind slowly, especially when hundreds of protesters who set out to get arrested wind up inundating the court system in rural counties with limited resources. Nearly a year after activists unsuccessfully targeted the Line 3 pipeline replacement project in northern Minnesota, Forum News says some protesters and attorneys still waiting for their cases to be adjudicated wonder what’s taking so long.

Nearly 800 of several thousand demonstrators were charged with crimes, most of them stemming from protests during last year’s construction. The prosecutions jammed county courthouses in northern Minnesota.

About a fifth of the cases remain open, according to Marla Marcum, director of the nonprofit Climate Disobedience Center. Marcum has been tracking the pipeline litigation jointly with the Pipeline Legal Action Network in Minnesota.

…”We’re still seeing counties that are struggling to even schedule hearings let alone resolve cases,” said Claire Glenn, a lawyer with the Line 3 Legal Defense Project, backed by the Civil Liberties Defense Center and the Water Protector Legal Collective.

One of the key cases remaining to be tried involves two activists protesting inside the pipeline whom authorities maintain were in danger of dying. Emergency responders equipped with oxygen tanks say they pulled the pair out just in time. Now they face charges in Aitkin County.

Minneapolis civil rights lawyer Jordan Kushner said this is the first time he’s seen civil disobedience protesters charged with felony theft or with aiding assisted suicide.

Kushner is representing Bayzaee and Zhou-Kourvo. They were arrested on a hot July day last year in Verdon Township after crawling some 250 feet into a pipe that was closed on one end, and secured themselves together inside.

A volunteer firefighter strapped on an oxygen tank and crawled in after them with a rope. He testified he thought they were close to heat stroke but they refused to come out, saying they were prepared to die to protect the water, court documents show. Then Aitkin County Sheriff Dan Guida went in and tied a rope to one protester. With just minutes left on Guida’s oxygen tank, all three were pulled out together “like a big plug,” Guida testified.

“They looked like they’d been in a 130-degree oven for an hour,” Guida said.

But most cases turn out to be more routine as prosecutors gradually work their way through the process.

By Marcum’s count, the criminal cases against an estimated 800 protesters include about 95 felony charges — mostly felony theft related to demonstrators chaining themselves to equipment. Marcum called the numbers conservative.

Although there isn’t a full account yet, most of the closed cases appear to have been resolved by a stay of adjudication or continuance for dismissal, Marcum said. That generally means that if a person stays out of trouble, the charges will be dismissed or there will be no conviction on their record.

Regardless of the final tally of convictions and jail time, authorities in the counties along the pipeline’s route have already sent a clear message.

“My take on it has always been the same,” said Hubbard County Attorney Jonathan Frieden. “We don’t prosecute people based on their beliefs. We prosecute people if they violate criminal statute.”