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US states seek to criminalize protest events against ‘critical infrastructure’

Legislation meant to criminalize protest rallies targeting “critical infrastructure” such as pipelines are pending in half a dozen US states following long-held protest actions against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The protest events under hashtag #NODAPL that spilled from Standing Rock Indian reservation nationwide and lasted for several months in 2016 have reportedly prompted local lawmakers to propose legislation that would “protect” some “critical infrastructure,” specifically oil and gas pipelines, from that sort of actions, RT reported Saturday.

Such bills have gone through the final stages of the legislative process in the states of Minnesota and Louisiana without any hurdles or much public debates or attention. The states host parts of the Bakken system, which includes both the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Energy Transfer Crude Oil Pipeline linking oil fields in North Dakota and the Mexican Gulf Coast.

They do not just seek to prevent any potential protesters from damaging the facilities but would also penalize trespassing into the “critical infrastructure” territory and even discussing the action.

The legislation introduced in Minnesota actually envisions penalties amounting to up to one year in prison for anyone who “recruits, trains, aids, advises, hires, counsels, or conspires” with anyone seeking to trespass into a critical infrastructure facility.

The penalty can be further increased to as many as 10 years in prison if the trespasser intends to “substantially disrupt” the facility.

The wording of the legislation can potentially be applied to peaceful protests blocking access to some infrastructure, which, under the Minnesota laws, can include even bus stations and bridges, according to International Center for Not-for-Profit Law in its US Protest Law Tracker, which warns such legislation could open broad opportunities for a crackdown against peaceful protesters.

In Louisiana — where it is already illegal to trespass into critical infrastructure facilities — lawmakers went even further. According to a bill passed this week, those “conspiring” to trespass into a critical infrastructure territory could be sentenced to up to five years in prison.

If determined that this conspiracy could potentially lead to disruption of the work at the facility, the sentence could increase to six or even 20 years in prison.

These two pieces of legislation are far from being some isolated cases. A bill envisaging huge fines for the protesters was also adopted in Oklahoma in May 2017. Similar legislation were introduced by Iowa, Ohio and Pennsylvania as well as Wyoming.

Legislation in Ohio and Pennsylvania are also pending while a similar bill in Wyoming was passed in April, before being vetoed eventually by the state’s governor.

The $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is a 1,172 mile (1,866 km) underground pipeline, built to carry oil from the Bakken shale oil fields in North Dakota to the oil tank farm in Illinois.

In 2016, a number of Native American tribes in the North and South Dakota opposed the pipeline construction, arguing it would threaten their sacred burial grounds as well as their sources of fresh water.

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