The US government has dismissed charges against two-thirds of the defendants previously facing up to 60 years in prison for protesting President Donald Trump's inauguration.
The US Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia announced it would drop the charges against 129 of the remaining 188 defendants, almost a year to the day after they were arrested in the US capital. Fifty-nine defendants still face charges stemming from the anti-Trump, anti-capitalist Disrupt J20 protest.
A jury cleared the first seven defendants to stand trial of all charges against them late last month.
The Attorney's Office said they dropped the charges against most of the remaining defendants in order to focus on a smaller, core group that they believe were most responsible for the "violence and destruction" that occurred on Inauguration Day.
More than 200 people were arrested in connection with Disrupt J20 protest last January, after DC Metropolitan police claimed the demonstration became violent. Previous indictments accused some of the protesters of breaking windows, throwing rocks, and destroying a government vehicle.
All 196 defendants were originally charged with six felonies and two misdemeanours, resulting in a maximum possible sentence of 60 years in prison.
In the first trial bloc, however, the prosecution did not claim any of the seven defendants on trial had engaged in the property destruction themselves. Instead, the state urged jurors to convict based on the defendant’s participation in the march alone.
The case concerned a number of free-speech advocates, who feared it would deter others from protesting in the future.
“There is a serious potential that these prosecutions will have a chilling effect on future protestors who will be scared to use their First Amendments rights,” Scott Michelman, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU of the District of Columbia, told The Independent in November.
The Attorney's Office says it will now re-focus its efforts on those defendants they believe committed "identifiable acts of destruction, violence, or other assaultive conduct" or engaged in the planning of those activities. They will also focus on defendants they claim demonstrated a knowledge of black bloc – a common protest tactic in which participants dress all in black and cover their faces.
Kris Hermes, a member of the Defend J20 group that formed in support of the defendants, said the group would continue to fight the charges for the remaining 59 individuals.
"We remain staunchly opposed to these prosecutions – period, full stop – and will do everything in our power to push back against these politically motivated prosecutions," he told The Independent.
He added: "It’s clear from [the prosecution's] efforts so far that this is a case not about a few broken windows, but about an attempt to stifle dissent."
The defendants were originally scheduled to be tried in small blocs stretching to the end of the year. The state has requested that the remaining defendants' trial schedules be consolidated going forward.
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