RFK Jr. Stands Trial for Vieques Protest

Environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. headed into court Friday saying he is ready to go to jail for trespassing to protest U.S. Navy bombing exercises on Vieques island.

His lawyer, former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, said he would use the trial to argue for a political solution to end six decades of bombardments on the Navy's prized Atlantic firing range.

Kennedy and New York labor leader Dennis Rivera were among about 180 people detained during exercises in late April and early May on the Puerto Rican island. They face up to 30 days in jail for trespassing on Navy land, which has become a popular form of protest.

Asked if they were ready for that, both men said yes.

"I'm prepared for whatever," said Kennedy, president of the Riverkeeper Alliance environmental group based in White Plains, N.Y.

Kennedy and Rivera were among eight protesters being tried on Friday. The others include pro-statehood Puerto Rican Sen. Norma Burgos and Myrta Sanes, sister of a civilian guard killed by off-target bombs on the Vieques range in 1999.

The death of her brother, David Sanes, sparked protests throughout Puerto Rico against the Navy's use of Vieques.

Kennedy, son of slain U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy and nephew of President John F. Kennedy, said he is glad that since he was arrested, President Bush has announced that the Navy will stop bombing exercises on Vieques by May 2003.

But, he said, "That position begs the question, why are we going to continue bombing?"

Kennedy and other opponents argue the bombing harms the environment and the health of the island's 9,100 residents -- charges the Navy strongly denies.

New York and Connecticut have filed a friend-of-the-court brief to support Puerto Rico's legal case that seeks to block the Navy exercises. The brief was filed jointly on June 28.

Cuomo and his law partner, former U.S. Attorney Benito Romano, were defending Kennedy and Rivera. Cuomo said they hope to sway the judge to grant more lenient sentences.

Kennedy was detained in April along with actor Edward James Olmos and U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a Democrat from Illinois, who have yet to go on trial.

Many people gathered outside the courthouse Friday to speak in support of Kennedy and the other protesters, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and Democratic Reps. John Conyers of Michigan and Nydia Velazquez of New York.

Velazquez said she hoped the judge would recognize that "We live in a democracy and that one of our rights is civil disobedience."

Jackson's wife, Jacqueline, and the Rev. Al Sharpton are among protesters jailed for trespassing in Vieques. Mrs. Jackson served a 10-day sentence last month. Sharpton was sentenced to 90 days because it was his second conviction and is to remain behind bars in New York City until Aug. 15.