US pipeline protester has ‘no regrets’ after conviction for felony obstruction

A non-violent environmental activist has been found guilty of felony obstruction for her role in trying to halt construction of a fossil fuel pipeline through Indigenous territory in Minnesota, in a trial beset by legal irregularities which ended with the prosecutor demanding jail time.

Mylene Vialard, 54, was arrested in July 2021 after attaching herself to a 25ft bamboo tower erected to block a pumping station in Aitkin county, northern Minnesota.

Her arrest was part of a crackdown on non-violent Indigenous-led protests opposing the expansion and rerouting on Line 3 – a 1,097-mile tar sands oil pipeline with a dismal safety record, that crosses more than 200 water bodies from Alberta, Canada, to refineries in the US midwest.

Despite the verdict, Vialard told the Guardian that she had “no regrets” and that the trial demonstrated what environmental and Indigenous activists “were up against”.

“I did not get a fair trial and there were so many reasons for an acquittal and mistrial, this cannot be the justice system we have … I am not at all surprised by the verdict but I am surprised by the outrageous way the prosecution behaved,” said Vialard, a self-employed translator from Boulder, Colorado.

After the guilty verdict on Friday, the judge told Vialard that she faced a sentence of 12 months and one day probation – as per sentencing guidelines in this case. But the prosecutor intervened and improperly requested she be imprisoned – without providing any legal basis or explanation.

Vialard now faces an anxious wait until sentencing, which has not yet been scheduled.

The week-long trial was beset by delays and legal arguments due to numerous alleged violations.

In one incident, a sheriff’s deputy was caught broadcasting the Zoom audio from inside the courtroom into the public hallways of the courthouse, which is used by jurors and witnesses alike – in violation of sequestration rules and the court’s own pre-trial order barring public Zoom access to the trial.

In court the prosecutor incorrectly claimed Vialard was not an American citizen – she was born in France – and that she had been trespassing when arrested – despite having been repeatedly admonished by the judge as a trespass charge was previously dismissed.

“Jury returned a guilty verdict on felony obstruction, following a trial in which the prosecution engaged in repeated, flagrant and intentional misconduct throughout the trial and during closing arguments … the court turned a blind eye to the legal violations of law enforcement and the prosecutor, as well as its own legal errors, at the expense of Ms Vialard’s constitutional rights in this trial,” said Claire Glenn, Vialard’s attorney from the Climate Defense Project.

“Mylene’s guidelines are presumptive 12 months and a day stayed, meaning the judge is expected to give her 366 days probation. If the prosecutor wants anything more serious than that, there are specific showings he must make to justify that request. But he asked for 366 days executed with no justification, which is illegal for him to do,” Glenn added.

The Aitkin county prosecutor, Garrett Slyva, who is reportedly under investigation for alleged misconduct in North Dakota, has been contacted for comment.

Vialard was among more than a thousand arrests by Minnesota law enforcement – which along with other agencies received at least $8.6m in payments from the Canadian company Enbridge behind Line 3.

Overall, at least 967 criminal charges were filed including several people charged under the state’s new critical infrastructure protection legislation – approved as part of a wave of anti-protest laws inspired by the American Legislative Exchange Council (Alec), a rightwing group backed by fossil fuel companies.

Earlier this week, Jill Ferguson, a 70-year-old grandmother from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was found guilty of obstructing legal process (interference with a peace office), a misdemeanour, and sentenced to two days in prison with time served for her role in a protest in July 2021 in Clearwater county.

“I am guilty,” Ferguson told the Guardian. “Guilty of protecting the headwaters of the Mississippi river, so this is a badge of honor.”

Ferguson suffered a concussion during the arrest, and continues to experience chronic physical and psychological effects from the trauma.

“I have not been the same person physically, emotionally or spiritually since that day, and still receive treatment for post-concussion syndrome and PTSD. Part of the trauma is the hopelessness that I feel, knowing that we don’t have the right to defend our land and water. The first amendment has been obliterated while the second amendment is untouched.”

The newly expanded Line 3 started transporting tar sands oil in October 2021.

Minnesota environmental regulators have confirmed four groundwater aquifer breaches along the new pipeline – including one last month in Aitkin county, not far from where Vialard was arrested, at a wild rice lake in an area with complex wetlands and peat bogs. Enbridge, which reported gross profits of $16.55bn for the year ending June 2023, has so far been fined $11m to address the breaches.

Last week a spokesperson for Enbridge said: “Protesters were not arrested for peaceful protest. They were arrested for breaking the law. We support efforts to hold protesters accountable for their actions.”


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