Standing Rock arrestees in legal limbo

Nearly 600 Standing Rock ‘water protectors’ remain in legal limbo after being arrested during the Dakota Access pipeline protests.

Protesters led by the Standing Rock Sioux have since early 2016 been engaged in protest against a proposed North Dakota oil pipeline which they say will threaten the tribe’s drinking water and desecrate sacred ancestral sites.

The North Dakota court system is struggling to process the large volume of cases resulting from mass arrests at the protests.

Around 200 trials and final deposition conferences scheduled for January were recently postponed indefinitely according to the New Yorker magazine.

An unsigned email to defence lawyers states that ‘because of the volume of cases which have been filed in recent months, it is necessary to reschedule trials for the convenience of all parties’.  The email made no reference to future trial dates.

Many of the Standing Rock protesters were held on trespass and riot charges.

In addition to logistical difficulties, the large amount of video, photographic and other evidence relevant to the cases has created further delays after a judge ruled that the prosecution was not fulfilling its legal obligation to provide all relevant material to the defence team.

The first trial of protesters, scheduled for December 19th, was delayed by six weeks when it emerged that three hours of footage and more than 500 photographs were not properly disseminated to defendants by the prosecution.

Legal clashes have also taken place over the protester’s rights to receive legal aid. 

Prosecutors argue that ‘activist lawyers’ are instructing defendants to clog up the court systems and have asked that the state seeks reimbursement from those who seek court-appointed lawyers.

Ladd R. Erickson, state attorney for McLean County, wrote in a filing, “our systems are not set up to be foddered by economic weaponry when people from around the world come to intentionally commit crimes for political purposes and have North Dakota taxpayers pick up the tab.”

In the only pipeline trial to have been concluded thus far, the judge agreed that the defendants should be made to pay the costs of their court-appointed attorney and charged them US$500 each.

Protesters have also expressed concern over a series of bills proposed by North Dakota’s Republican-dominated state legislature.  These include criminalising the wearing of masks at protests and removing liability for drivers who unintentionally kill or injure someone obstructing traffic on public roads. 

Protesters recently hailed the decision by the Army Corps of Engineers not to grant permission for the pipeline to cross the disputed waterway.  However, there are concerns that incoming President Donald Trump, an advocate of the fossil fuel industry, may reverse the decision after his January 20 inauguration.