By BLAKE NICHOLSON
BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) ~ An American Indian activist accused of inciting a riot during protests in North Dakota against the Dakota Access oil pipeline reached a plea deal with prosecutors Tuesday under which the charge will be reduced to disorderly conduct and he’ll avoid jail time.
The deal awaiting a judge’s signature called for Chase Iron Eyes to serve one year of probation and pay $1,850 in fines and fees. In return, prosecutors agreed to dismiss a criminal trespass charge.
Defense attorneys called the agreement “a major victory” for their client. Prosecutors Brian Grosinger and Chase Lingle didn’t immediately comment on their decision not to take the case to trial in November as scheduled.
Iron Eyes could have faced five years in prison if convicted of the felony riot charge filed after a February 2017 incident in which he and 73 others were arrested after erecting teepees on disputed land. Authorities said the land was owned by Texas-based pipeline developer Energy Transfer Partners. Protesters said they were peacefully assembling on land they believe rightfully belongs to American Indians under old treaties.
“The world should know that it’s legally impossible for me and other Native people to trespass on treaty land, and I never started a riot,” Iron Eyes said Tuesday. “I and the water protectors are not terrorists.”
“Water protectors” is what members of the Standing Rock Sioux and others dubbed themselves as they opposed the $3.8 billion pipeline to move North Dakota oil under the tribe’s Missouri River water supply and through South Dakota and Iowa to a shipping point in Illinois.
Thousands of opponents who worried about environmental harm gathered in encampments near the Standing Rock Reservation in 2016 and early 2017 to protest the pipeline that ETP maintains is safe. Some of them clashed with police, resulting in 761 arrests in a six-month span. The pipeline began operating in June 2017, but Standing Rock and three other tribes are still fighting in federal court to try to shut it down.
Iron Eyes’ plea agreement came two days before he and his attorneys were scheduled to appear in court and make a case for presenting a so-called “necessity defense” – that his actions were justified because they prevented a greater harm.
Pipeline protesters who have recently tried the necessity defense in other cases in North Dakota and other states have argued that the greater harm they’re trying to prevent is climate change due to fossil fuels. Iron Eyes, a Standing Rock member, also had planned to argue that civil disobedience was his only option to resist a pipeline’s incursion on his ancestral lands and prevent a threat to his tribe’s water supply.
“Now I can be with my family and continue defending the sovereignty of my people,” said Iron Eyes, an attorney with the Lakota People’s Law Project. “This will allow me to keep working nonstop to protect First Amendment, human and Native rights.”
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