EDMONTON – One of Alberta’s leading criminal defence lawyers is accusing the province’s top law enforcement official of linking environmental activism with terrorism.
Brian Beresh also says that recent remarks by Premier Ed Stelmach about 16 Greenpeace protesters are the worst example of political interference in the courts for more than a decade.
The activists are facing charges after a protest at an oilsands upgrader near Edmonton on the weekend.
“If you start calling people terrorists, you don’t think people might take the law into their own hands?” Beresh asked Tuesday. “It is so irresponsible.”
But Solicitor General Fred Lindsay denied that any such link was intended.
“What I was referencing was our counter-terrorism action plan – not that these people are terrorists, but because of the actions that they’re taking we need to secure our sites in a manner that’s going to do everything we can to ensure they don’t get access to our sites,” he said.
On Saturday, Greenpeace staged the third of several protests against the oilsands industry, which the environmental group criticizes for its impact on climate change.
Stelmach told reporters that the justice system was coddling the protesters and warned he would work with legal officials to stop them.
Lindsay followed up by suggesting Alberta might use its counter-terrorism plan against future protests.
Beresh, who will defend the activists when they appear in court Nov. 4, said Lindsay should never have used the word terrorism in connection with environmental activism.
“Given what we know in our present society about people being held as terrorists … to equate the two is McCarthyism reborn in Alberta.”
McCarthyism refers to a period of U.S. political hysteria in the 1950s when careers and livelihoods were destroyed on hearsay or even suspicion of Communist ties.
Beresh – one of Alberta’s busiest lawyers who has argued cases from Yellowknife to the Supreme Court of Canada – said the politicians shouldn’t presume the guilt of people who haven’t even appeared in court.
He said Stelmach’s comments were the most blatant case of political interference since 1997 when then-premier Ralph Klein told judges they were civil servants who could be hired and fired at will.
Beresh suggested political interference may have already affected his clients.
He said prosecutors had no objections to bail Saturday for any of the activists. But during hearings on Sunday, after Stelmach’s remarks appeared in print, the Crown objected to bail for several of his clients.
“It caused me to wonder whether or not the premier’s comments had that immediate an effect.”
Charges against the activists have also escalated. No one was charged after the first protest Sept. 15 at Shell’s Muskeg River oilsands mine. But mischief charges were laid after a Sept. 30 attempt to block production at Suncor’s upgrader near Fort McMurray – despite Suncor’s original declaration it wouldn’t seek legal recourse.
And the break-and-enter charges laid after the third demonstration were the first use of the Criminal Code.
Other legal experts have also voiced serious concerns, including University of Alberta law professor Sanjeev Anand and lawyer Tom Engel. Anand said Stelmach’s response could make the Nov. 4 court date for the activists seem like “show trials.”
Beresh said his goal is to try to find out if there was any communication between prosecutors and the government. But even if no phone call or email was sent, Stelmach’s comments to reporters constitute “public communication,” said Beresh.
Lindsay denied any attempt to influence the prosecution.
“I respect the justice system and I respect its independence,” he said. “The comments I was making were more in regards to the seriousness of the actions we’ve seen in the last three weeks and steps that we’re looking at taking to protect the infrastructure in this province.
“I don’t believe we bend over backwards for any industry.”
Greg Lepp, assistant deputy minister, criminal justice, Alberta Justice, said Tuesday that “there’s no truth at all” to Beresh’s allegations of politicial interference.
Lepp, whose comments were released Tuesday evening by Alberta Justice spokesman David Dear, also said this is the second time that Beresh has made allegations of political interference against Stelmach.
The first was in a case in the Vegreville area – Stelmach’s riding – and the judge found no evidence for the allegations of interference that Beresh made, Lepp said.