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Supporters of imprisoned Tim DeChristopher declared victory Thursday in pressing for his release from what they called a politically motivated "isolated confinement," but they clamored for an investigation into why the eco-activist was ever punished.
Rallying outside the Salt Lake City federal courthouse, where last year a jury convicted him and a judge sentenced him to two years for disrupting an oil and gas lease auction, DeChristopher's allies credited calls from across the country in getting him moved back into minimum security at the Herlong, Calif., federal prison camp.
"I think what they were really saying is, 'Where is the justice?' " said the Rev. Tom Goldsmith, DeChristopher's minister at Salt Lake City's First Unitarian Church. "How can this happen in the sweet land of liberty? How in God's name is this even possible?"
DeChristopher was removed from the general prison population March 9 and restricted from most outdoor activity or contact, according to his attorney, Pat Shea.
DeChristopher reported that the official who moved him said it was at a congressman's request for an investigation stemming from an email the inmate had sent a friend from prison.
In the email, DeChristopher questioned whether a legal defense fund contributor was moving U.S. manufacturing jobs overseas, and whether he should threaten to return the money or give it to protesting workers. Shea said there's nothing illegal about such an ultimatum and officials had no cause to restrict his client's free-speech rights.
A prison spokeswoman declined to confirm DeChristopher's reported move back into minimum security, citing inmate privacy. Speaking generally, spokeswoman Eloisa DeBruler said the prison staff would "never move an inmate because we get a bunch of calls for it."
Rather, she said, inmates are routinely removed from the isolated Special Housing Unit for reasons including the conclusion of an investigation.
Utah's congressional delegation has denied any involvement in or knowledge of a Congress member's call for DeChristopher's isolation. On Thursday, the activist's friends and supporters called for an investigation with Shea saying the only plausible route would be a congressional committee inquiry.
"We want an investigation," Goldsmith said, "in terms of who has the audacity to interfere with our justice system."
Dylan Schneider, a friend of DeChristopher, said she had spoken with him by phone Thursday morning. He told her he was glad to be out of isolation.
"He said he had gotten a little pale," Schneider reported.
Henia Belalia, an organizer with the climate-justice group Peaceful Uprising, said DeChristopher's treatment over his political views makes him a symbol of prisoner abuses that often go undetected because most inmates lack a following.
"We demand some answers," she said. "Tim is one of many hundreds, thousands of political prisoners in this country and in the world."
DeChristopher's defense team will argue its appeal of his conviction May 10 before the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. They are arguing that the trial judge improperly limited his defense options, including by barring evidence that oil companies have sometimes bid on leases without ever paying the same thing DeChristopher did.
On Thursday, Shea added that companies also have colluded to rig bids and keep down their prices without anyone facing jail time.
"We have two levels of justice," he said. "We're working at a lower level [than corporations], but we are going to be victorious."
DeChistopher has spent eight months in prison. He could be eligible for release about a year from now with time off for good behavior. It's unclear whether this latest incident could affect that timing, or eligibility for a five-day furlough that Shea said DeChristopher can request after April.