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No news is good news, as the saying goes, but when it comes to the legal case of Hugh Farrell and Gina "Tiga" Wertz, no news is ambiguous.
Farrell and Wertz engaged in peaceful protests against the I-69 highway, and the State of Indiana has charged them with felony racketeering and several misdemeanors.
Wertz is charged with intimidation, a class A demeanor, two counts; conversion (unauthorized use of someone else’s property), a class A misdemeanor, two counts; and corrupt business influence (racketeering), a class C felony. Her bond was set at $10,000.
Farrell is charged with two counts of intimidation, two counts of conversion and corrupt business influence; his bond was set at $20,000.
At the Petersburg courthouse on Jan. 21, at the first court hearing since Wertz and Farrell’s arrest, their attorneys moved for the judge to dismiss the racketeering charge and to reduce the misdemeanor charges. The judge responded that he would take the issue "under advisement" and make his decision "soon."
According to mostlyeverything.net, at the hearing, "The prosecutor was playing dirty, even going so far as to liken Tiga and Hugh’s charges with murder." Yet in their protests no one was hurt, nor was any property damaged.
A pretrial court hearing was scheduled for March 4. On March 2 Farrell and Wertz learned that the March 4 hearing was postponed indefinitely, and the judge hadn’t announced his decision about dismissing and reducing the charges.
The arrest warrants allege that the defendants were affiliated with Roadblock Earth First! and describe the organization as "an enterprise with the stated and actual objective of discouraging and/or obstructing the lawful construction of I-69. . . ."
"At the Petersburg courthouse on Jan. 21, … their attorneys moved for the judge to dismiss the racketeering charge and to reduce the misdemeanor charges."
Farrell and Wertz are charged with intimidation for removing furniture and posting an eviction notice on the front door of an state I-69 office; allegedly participating in a tree sit; and, according to Farrell’s arrest warrant, "kicking over chairs, climbing on a table and shouting at members of the public" during an I-69 informational meeting.
The felony racketeering charges stem from the defendants’ allegedly "conspiring" to commit the above actions, along with their door-to-door visits to homeowners living in the path of the highway.
The arrest warrant accuses the defendants of "advocating anarchy, property destruction and violence, including advocating literature and materials which advocate anarchy, property destruction and violence. …"
Activists say Farrell and Wertz are being prosecuted because they have been some of the most outspoken opponents of I-69. The charges are clearly political, intended to silence and punish them for their views and for exercising their right to free speech.
According to local activist Alex Smith, "The state is taking a forceful and draconian approach. The state feels they have to crush this because the opposition is big, and there is resistance. The state is trying to alienate the activist community from those who are also against I-69, but who are not taking an activist approach. Their strategy is to create a wedge."
The arrests, by the Indiana State Police and Indiana Department of Natural Resources Ecoterrorism Task Force, bear the earmarks of FBI involvement.
"The judge responded that he would take the issue ‘under advisement’ and make his decision ‘soon.’"
Harassment through the legal system is a standard FBI method of dealing with activists. The outlandish charges with high bail are calculated to intimidate and frighten. Frequent postponement of court hearings bogs down the defendants, wasting their attorneys’ time and raising their fees and travel expenses. The harassment says to community organizers, "Be careful — we’re watching you. If you speak out, you might be charged with a criminal offense."
Covert action directed against political activists, as indymedia.org points out, is the quintessential FBI activity. "Part of COINTELPRO and other intelligence agendas, the FBI has been engaged in domestic surveillance activities and have been falsely targeting political activists since the 1960s."
In recent years the FBI identified the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation front as the top domestic terrorism threats. "Eco-sabotage" is the government’s top domestic terrorism priority. The focus on these activist organizations is now being used to justify repression against community organizers.
The FBI has a long history of coordinating operations with other arms of law enforcement. In one infamous case, the assasination of Chicago Black Panther Fred Hampton in 1969, the Chicago police carried out the murder with the help of a map of Hampton’s apartment the FBI provided.
FBI agents have been spotted at Wertz and Farrell’s two court dates, as well as on the day of the arrests.
The FBI’s Ecoterrorism Task Force has an office in Bloomington. Eugene, Ore., is the only other city that has such an office.
"The prosecutor was playing dirty, even going so far as to liken Tiga and Hugh’s charges with murder."With reference to Operation Backfire, an earlier "eco-sabotage" investigation that the FBI spearhearded in 2005, a news release from the National Lawyers Guild quotes Executive Director Heidi Boghosian, "In the past few years, the Guild has witnessed a disturbing trend of targeting protesters engaged in dissent, and in imposing draconian sentences for expressing such dissent. Life sentences for property damage offenses where the actor has no intent to harm an individual are simply unconstitutional — the punishment does not fit the crime."
Before 9/11, it would have been impossible to bring such "draconian" charges against people engaged in nonviolent action. Since then the government has increasingly criminalized dissent under the heading of domestic terrorism. The FBI needs a new domestic target so it looks like it’s accomplishing something. Arresting activists makes law enforcement look good.
Conviction of Farrell and Wertz would set a powerful precedent, allowing the government to more boldly charge visible and public organizers in a variety of movements with exotic charges.
LINDA GREENE can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on the Bloomington Alternative.