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British Photographer Steve Morgan jailed in US

19 July 2001 - EPUK

A British freelance photographer is facing a possible eleven year prison sentence in California after being arrested at Vandenberg United States Air Force base on Saturday whilst photographing a Greenpeace organised protest against the recent Star Wars missile test.

44 year old Steve Morgan, a member of EPUK, is well known for his coverage of environmental issues, and his work has appeared in a wide range of UK and international publications.

On Monday evening he, two British Greenpeace activists, and fourteen others appeared at a Los Angeles federal court to face charges; the defendants were manacled and dressed in orange prison uniforms.

The charges are conspiracy to violate a safety zone, and failure to adhere to the Commander’s instructions. The first is a Class D felony charge which carries a minimum 5 years jail term, and a maximum of ten years. It could also carry a fine of up to $250,000. The second charge is a misdemeanour carrying a maximum one year jail term and a maximum $5,000 fine. Either charge could be imposed singly or jointly. Both sentences could run consecutively.

The U.S. Government attorney has filed an appeal against Monday’s ruling which had allowed all the defendants bail, but with restrictions put on their movements and their passports seized. The prosecution has not made clear the grounds for the appeal, but had previously indicated they believed there was a chance that if they were released they would leave the country. The motion is due to be heard Thursday 19th July at 10.00am (PDT), and if it is granted then all may be kept in federal jail until their trial.

Heather Morgan, wife of Steve Morgan, with sons George, 4, and Henry, 3, protest outside Buckingham Palace, London while US President Bush has lunch with The Queen on 19 July 2001. Photograph © Brian Harris

Morgan’s wife Heather, who has been denied contact with her husband, expressed surprise at the charges, and said that she was “extremely concerned” for his welfare. Greenpeace International’s William Peden described the prison conditions as “Appalling…they are housed in a maximum security facility, 30 prisoners to a pen and one open toilet for all.”

The arrest highlights the difficulties faced by photographers working in situations where demonstrators may engage in acts deemed illegal by the authorities. Police and military forces are often either unable or unwilling to distinguish between protesters and media, resulting in unwarranted arrests of working photographers.

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