Sentencing of Utah Tar Sands Opponents – And a Message

After nearly 6 months of difficult negotiations between defense attorneys for 25 tar sands protesters and the Uintah County prosecutor’s office, Judge Edwin Peterson handed down sentences to the 25 land defenders on the morning of Thursday, January 8th.

Several of the initial charges filed, such as “felony rioting” and “attempt to escape custody” were clearly intended to send a signal that any pushback against the extraction industry in northeastern Utah was going to be dealt with harshly and treated as a highly serious matter, and that an example was going to be made of certain individuals.

In the days that followed the July arrests, various news organization websites and other internet websites had police alleging that protesters vandalized signs, resisted arrest, struck officers with rocks and bottles, attempted to escape, and injured an officer (the officer twisted his wrist while moving a protester who had sat down in the road to block the police van). None of that was true.

It was also reported that US Oil Sands CEO Cameron Todd was alleged to have said that the protesters represent a small group craving media attention, that they unwisely allowed children to follow them into the fenced-off enclosure (not true), and that police were expressing concern that there was now a group of people (the protesters) who had become a mob.

Ultimately seven of the twenty-five were charged with third-degree felonies of rioting and failure to stop at command of law enforcement; these charges were misdemeanors that were “enhanced” to felonies by law enforcement because more than 3 people participated, and because the offence took place on a “mining operation” (which was not the case, the action involved heavy equipment that was being used for clear-cutting and grading). The felony charges potentially carried a maximum sentence of up to 5 years in jail.

On the day of the court proceedings and sentencing, there were about a dozen supporters in the courtroom during the proceedings, and supporters wore orange ribbons to show their support and solidarity.

[Background: Twenty-one protesters were arrested as a result of a July 21 civil disobedience action and subsequent confrontation involving 80 anti-tar sands activists at the US Oil Sands site near PR Springs, Utah. Five were arrested on September 23rd after interrupting operation of heavy equipment in a clear-cut area that will be used to store future strip mining tailings. Participants in the action included activists from local groups UtahTarSandsResistance, PeacefulUprising, CanyonCountryRisingtTde and other activists from across the US]

As it turned out, because of numerous back-and forth discussions with the prosecutor’s office, the defense attorneys negotiated down the most outrageous charges, and no jail time was handed out to anyone. Sentences ranged from 1 year probation and 40 hours community service for 10 individuals who had been charged with criminal trespass, to 18 months probation and 120 hours of community service for seven who had been charged with felony rioting. Two of those seven were also ordered to stay 300 feet from the US Oil Sands tar sands site. Others who were charged with interfering with an arresting officer and criminal trespass received were given sentences in between the two extremes. Nine of the land defenders are associated with the activist groups UtahTarSandsResistance (UTSR) and PeacefulUprising. Many of the other 16 are out-of-state environment activists that came to PR Springs for a week-long Action Camp that preceded the civil disobedience action. {more}

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