VERNAL -- More than two dozen protesters of tar sands oil development struck plea deals in a marathon court hearing here.
The 25 people, facing charges for a series of demonstrations at U.S. Oil Sands property in the Uintah Basin, entered a series of "no contest" pleas to charges ranging from trespassing to interfering with arrest and felony rioting. In all of the cases, the charges were dropped to misdemeanors and infractions.
The activists for Utah Tar Sands Resistance entered what are known as a "plea in abeyance," as well as diversionary deals that would see the charges dismissed after a year or more if no other violations of the law occurred. In all of the cases, 8th District Court Judge Edwin Peterson agreed not to sentence them to jail time. Instead, they were ordered to serve community service.
The protesters pleaded for their roles in a series of demonstrations in July and September.
Watch videos of the protests released by environmental groups here:
"The government needs to penalize the corporate criminals that are destroying the air and the water and the land," said Melanie Martin, one of the demonstrators. "Not the people working to protect them."
Martin appeared in court with Lionel Trepanier to enter pleas. The rest were allowed to do it by filing papers with the court. Most were from out-of-state and, in some cases, outside the U.S.
In some cases, Judge Peterson ordered the activists to stay at least 300 feet from the tar sands development sites.
"The intent was not to inhibit them from exercising any of their free speech rights," said Uintah County Attorney Mark Thomas. "The intent was to discourge them from crossing over the line and violating the law."
Outside court, Martin and Trepanier were surrounded by supporters who wore orange ribbons in solidarity. Raphael Cordray, an activist with Utah Tar Sands Resistance, said the demonstrations against tar sands would continue.
She said Uintah County's decision to level so many charges against so many activists drew more attention to their cause.
"We know that people around the world are recognizing the effects of climate change, and realizing that the government and the laws and legislation is not going to protect us," Cordray said.