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Tuesday, 26 September, 2000, 20:23 GMT 21:23 UK
The tale of two trials
Oxfordshire, July 1999
An angry summer: the first attack of July 1999
The environmental pressure group Greenpeace says it is "delighted" with the acquittal of 28 members charged in connection with destroying GM crops.

The defendants were cleared of theft and criminal damage after facing two trials in six months relating to the action on a Norfolk farm last year.

But the implications of the dramatic verdicts could go further than just preventing 28 men and women from going to jail.

The controversy started brewing in the spring of 1999, as trials of GM crops rolled out across British farms.

Campaigners began to mobilise public opinion against the new food technology, branded "Frankenfoods".

But protesters also decided direct action was necessary.

Norfolk, July 1999
The protesters struck early in the morning

On two consecutive weekends in July 1999, activists broke into test site areas and destroyed GM crops.

Using machines, strimmers and their bare hands they ripped up plants and trampled crops into the ground.

The second attack, on a farm in Norfolk on 26 July, led to the arrests of 28 activists, including Lord Peter Melchett, and their subsequent court appearances.

The activists - all Greenpeace members - made it clear that they would fight tooth and nail to clear their names and justify their position.

They said they were acting out of necessity, to prevent neighbouring farms from being damaged by genetically-modified pollen.

The first trial began on 4 April this year, at Norwich Crown Court.

Judge David Mellor told jurors that this was a "matter of major public controversy", and that it was not a judgement on whether GM crops were a good thing or not.

'Genetic pollution'

Lord Melchett, 52, admitted the attack but said they had a lawful justification to "remove this genetic pollution".

But the prosecutor, John Farmer, said there was "no legal reason" why the farmer should not be able to grow the crop.

The jurors found the protesters not guilty of theft on 17 April.

But despite an extra day of deliberation they could not decide on the second charge of criminal damage and the jury was discharged.

The second trial began in September and again lasted for two weeks.

Outside Norwich Crown Court
Lord Melchett and friends: all smiles

This time the jury reached a verdict, finding the defendants not guilty of criminal damage.

Lord Melchett and his followers say it is a clear vindication of their stance, having been cleared after arguing their case in the dock twice.

However, police involved in the case say they feel they were right to bring the prosecution.

An intensification of the direct action battle against GM trials could be likely - especially with imminent start of the winter test plantings.

Lord Melchett has already told BBC News 24 that he "could not rule out" further attacks on farms growing GM crops. And he called on Tony Blair to stop all GM trials immediately.

Greenpeace are now hoping to get their 250,000 court costs paid.

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